Promoting sustainable development

16 March 2006

IN April 1997, with support from the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), 39 representatives of diverse interests met in Gland, Switzerland to discuss the controversial issues associated with large dams. The event paved the way for the establishment of the World Commission on Dams. On 16 November 2000, the WCD report ‘Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making’ was launched.

Phase 2 of the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP) Dams and Development project has the goal to promote improved decision making of dams and their alternatives drawing on the WCD core values and strategic priorities and other reference materials. The project works towards strengthening national and international normative frameworks and building managerial capacity through dialogue processes and the development of non-prescriptive tools. The project responds to the challenges around dams and development.

Dams are at the centre of the debate about sustainable development because of their role in allocating water resources and the impacts they have on a wide range of stakeholders and the environment. It is widely recognised that dams have made substantial contribution to human development and are likely to continue to do so. The controversy about dams, however, is not primarily about their technical aspects but social and environmental implications and therefore their sustainability. Inevitably, unless addressed, the conflict will become more intense with the increased efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), particularly the targets set for increasing water supply, food production and electricity provision.

The background to the dams and development debate and the inherent development challenges are discussed here. The paper articulates how the Dams and Development project is attempting to contribute to resolving some of the challenges with the view of promoting sustainable development and management of dams to meet future needs.

Why dams and development?

The aspiration to meet the MDGs puts the development of infrastructure high on the development agenda. Such infrastructure includes inter alia water storage facilities, including dams. Dams, large and small, are important infrastructure measures in water resources management. The direct link between water storage and economic and social well being is well recognised at the highest political level especially in developing countries eager to build dams. For example, the Extraordinary Summit of the African Union held in Sitre, Libya in May 2004 highlighted the need to develop dams for water, energy and food security.

March 2006’s African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development illustrated the steps being taken at political level to move this agenda forward in Africa. The developed countries in turn have pledged a substantial amount of aid to support infrastructure development primarily in Africa (4th Dams and Development Forum meeting proceedings, October 2005).

The WCD process undertook an extensive study of the performance of dams in the world and their contribution to human development. While acknowledging that dams have made a significant contribution to worldwide development, the report also concluded that they have had the most profound impact in many ways, including environmental and social.

For instance, almost 16% of global food production and the generation of 17% of global electricity are attributed to large dams. However, when it comes to environmental issues, there is overwhelming evidence suggesting the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of ecosystem. On the social front, large dam projects are known to have displaced millions of people, and the dams- affected people are not always among the direct beneficiaries of the respective dams; furthermore, competition for water increasingly threatens social and political stability both within and between countries (WCD report, 2000 and World Energy Outlook, 2005).

From these lessons of the past, the WCD report strongly recommended revisiting the decision-making frameworks applied to dams and their alternatives so that projects duly address all options available and take into account environmental and social issues and the expectations of the stakeholders, particularly the negatively affected ones. It is noted that projects that benefit all, thus achieving a reasonable level of public acceptance, will reduce the financial and implementation risks, becoming attractive to investors and will effectively contribute to sustainable development.

Promoting improved decision-making on dams and their alternatives, through bringing stakeholders together to find appropriate solutions to these issues and making relevant practices used elsewhere available to decision-makers, is what drives the DDP.

How the ddp works

Project Phase 1 ended in 2004. Following the recommendations of the external evaluation, the project’s Steering Committee, donors and UNEP decided to launch the time-bound second phase to end in 2007. If the first Phase was focused on disseminating the WCD report and promoting dialogues based on its Core Values and Strategic Priorities as an analytical decision-making framework (Figure 1), the imperative now is to promote improved decision-making through dialogues around improving normative frameworks and the elaboration of non-prescriptive practical tools based on relevant examples.

Main expected outputs of the project are:

• Awareness on the need to and wide agreement on how to improve national and international regulatory frameworks effectively taking into account social and environmental aspects and incorporating appropriate participatory approaches into decision-making.

• Non-prescriptive practical tools compiled from all relevant criteria and guidelines available to assist decision-makers in the planning and management of dams and their alternatives.

• Enhanced capacity of decision-makers to deal with dams and development related issues.

In its work, DDP is guided by key operational principles:

• Focusing on strengthening national and international normative frameworks.

• Using the WCD report’s five Core Values and seven Strategic Priorities as an analytical framework and basis for discussion.

• Knowledge driven, drawing on the WCD and DDP processes as well as other relevant materials and examples.

• Applying flexibility, promoting nationally/locally appropriate approaches and learning thereof – ‘a bottom up’ approach.

• Focusing on government decision-makers and addressing other stakeholder groups.

• Advocating inclusiveness of all perspectives and consensus over conflict.

• Promoting wide consultation and a partnership approach.

• Remaining factual and avoiding being judgmental.

Governance structure

UNEP is in charge of the project implementation through the DDP Secretariat based in its Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. The Steering Committee, composed of 16 members representing a range of stakeholders, is an advisory organ on substantive matters of the project implementation. The multi-stakeholder Dams and Development Forum (DDF) comprising 120 organisations from various stakeholder groups such as government, civil society, affected people, industry, international organisations and others is the platform from which the global dialogue on dams and development takes place.

With the project emphasis having shifted considerably to improving decision-making, while recognising the benefits of inclusive dialogue and participatory decision-making, the Government Advisory Consultative Group (GACG) was constituted in October 2005. The body consists of 19 representatives of governments from developing and industrialised countries and countries with economies in transition. The GACG provides guidance on key issues concerning the proposed outcomes of Phase 2.

Involvement of government agencies in the project governance structure (DDF, GACG or SC) from countries with major dam building programmes such as Brazil, China, India, and Turkey signifies the positive shift in addressing these issues and readiness to learn from each others experiences (see Figure 2).

What does the ddp do?

Figure 3 summarises the implementation of the project.

Global dialogues

In addition to the annual DDF meetings, the project organises issue-based technical workshops as per the priorities of the DDF. The workshops aim at unpacking the WCD strategic priorities and resolving outstanding controversial issues on dams and development for consideration and implementation at national level. The five workshops held over the last three years were:

• Options Assessment, 22-24 September 2003, which defined a comprehensive options assessment process, identified a set of principles and put forward a statement with recommendations to raise awareness on the importance of the topic and facilitate a more specific stage of discussions at the national level.

• Financing Dams and Sustainable Development, 20-21 April 2004, which intended to contribute to an increased understanding and awareness of the steps that can be taken to better manage the risks associated with financing dams and their alternatives and lead to a greater confidence that such projects would contribute to sustainable development.

• Addressing Existing Dams, 14-15 June 2004, which developed a set of recommendations and issues to be dealt with at national level related to dam safety, emergency preparedness and management, assessing and optimising performance and dealing with unresolved environmental and social issues.

• Ensuring Compliance, 15-16 June 2004, which identified recommendations and issues that reflect principles, criteria and strategies concerning the improvement of implementation of compliance mechanisms at the national level.

• Gaining Public Acceptance, 5 October 2005, which clarified the nature of the gaining public acceptance process and made recommendations on its four key components, namely: stakeholder identification; access to information; informed participation in decision-making process; and measure of acceptance including principles, criteria and strategies for further implementation of public acceptance at the national level.

The proceedings of all workshops and DDF meetings are available on the DDP website

The organisation of side-events by DDP in various international meetings discussing the water and energy issues is another platform for the global dialogue. The side-events bring together various panellists representing the different positions in the dams’ debate to discuss topics that evolve the Dam and Development dialogue. Recent events where the DDP has organised side-events include the African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development (6-9 March, 2006), the 4th World Water Forum (16-22 March 2006), along with the upcoming 14th UN Commission on Sustainable Development (1-12 May 2006).

National dialogues

The DDP supports national dialogue processes around dams and development. These are country-led processes and therefore approaches applied in taking the dialogues forward differ depending on the local situation. Nevertheless, they all share the common goal of developing, within a multistakeholder context and based on national priorities, recommendations to improve normative frameworks (policies, legislation, guidelines, criteria and procedures) as well as decision-making on dams and their alternatives.

The WCD Core Values and Strategic Priorities serves as the analytical framework to stimulate the dialogues. The thrust of this framework is that if dams or other options turn out to be the best methods of meeting water and energy demand, it should be context specific and decided on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of options with due consideration of environmental and social implications. The cornerstone of such a process is informed decision-making with meaningful stakeholder participation, particularly of affected people and vulnerable groups.

The project assists such dialogue initiatives upon request through financial resources, access to expertise, information materials and examples of approaches used successfully elsewhere.

Practical non-prescriptive tools

The second component of the DDP Work Programme is ‘developing practical non-prescriptive tools to help decision-makers’. These tools serve the purpose of enhancing the capacity of decision-makers to deal with dams and development issues. The project currently considers the following:

• Inventory of policy/normative frameworks that includes summaries of existing policies, laws, criteria and guidelines as they relate to dams and their alternatives.

• Database of Relevant Examples on the integration of the key topics into policy/regulatory frameworks at country and regional levels, i.e. ‘good practice’ and ‘lessons learnt’ concerning successes and failures.

• Compendium on Relevant Practices for improved decision making, planning and management of dams and their alternatives. Nine key priority issues (Benefit Sharing; Stakeholder Participation; Compliance; Compensation Policy; Outstanding Social Issues; Social Impact Assessment; International Policy Concerning Shared River Basins; Options Assessment; and Environmental Management Plan) have been selected upon the recommendation of the DD Forum meeting in October 2005 as an initial set for elaborating the first edition of the Compendium. Examples of good and relevant practices will be included to demonstrate how national and international frameworks deal with these key issues and implement in practice.

All interested stakeholders are encouraged to make inputs to the elaboration process of all three tools by sharing information on relevant examples, either submitting directly into the inventory and database available online or by letter, fax or email. A brief summary of the selected case is requested and the related papers or articles can be attached.

Communication and networking

The project promotes the flow of information on dialogue processes supported by DDP and their wide dissemination. It assists interested parties to participate in DDP initiatives and benefit from the practical tools elaborated by the project. The key element is the implementation of the Communication Strategy that works in two ways: to provide information and collect feedback and knowledge, with the purpose of continually improving the DDP knowledge base about dams and their alternatives.


The history and experience of the Dams and Development project to date demonstrates the necessity and possibility to discuss sensitive issues constructively in an open and inclusive manner. The Dams and Development Forum and ongoing national initiatives provide encouraging examples that an increasing number of countries are now taking the dialogue route preferring consensus to conflict that inhibits development. Further, there is an emerging shift achieved through the dialogue process, from discussing whether or not dams are needed to how to develop sustainable dams after the consideration of appropriate options and issues.

The national and global dialogues carried forward with the DDP support illustrate that the stakeholders with often polarised views are able to achieve agreement and make compromises while still adhering to their values. The establishment of the GACG is a demonstration of commitment by those who take decisions to engage in a transparent and participatory process which offers vast opportunities. The practical tools developed by the DDP provide access to knowledge and information compiled with the input of all stakeholders. They are available to the decision-makers to use in making locally appropriate decisions that benefit all while taking due account of the environmental and social implications.

Author Info:

For information please contact: UNEP - Dams and Development project, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, United Nations Environment Programme, PO Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel: (+254) 20 762 3942. Fax: (+254) 20 762 4763. Email:

The Secretariat would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. The overall cost of the project including both Phases is US$5M.

A few examples of the dialogue processes

Implementing recommendations of the multistakeholder dialogues, Republic of South Africa( RSA)

A detailed analysis of the implication of the WCD strategic priorities in RSA led by a multistakeholder Coordinating Committee in consultations with the Forum resulted in a comprehensive report with recommendations and proposals for further research. Three of the recommendations based on the priorities of RSA were selected for immediate implementation. The report was endorsed by all SA Forum members and presented to the Government in 2005.

Preparing recommendations for the improvement of the regulatory framework, Nepal

The dialogue process in Nepal is guided by a multistakeholder Steering Committee and a Task Force that produced a scoping report which led to further analysis of the relevance and application of four WCD strategic priorities to the national context. Based on the findings of in-depth studies, it is planned to develop recommendations for strengthening the national regulatory frameworks.

Enhancing sustainability policies in a developed country, Sweden

Sweden has a moratorium on the construction of large dams; however, the country is engaged in providing assistance for the development of water infrastructure projects in developing countries. The Swedish multistakeholder dialogue on WCD resulted in 25 recommendations to help its organisations to update their sustainability policies and strengthen regulatory frameworks related to development aid.

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