On 16 November 2000, the final report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was launched in London, in the presence of South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela. This represented a remarkable milestone in the history of dam policy and politics. During its two-year existence, WCD had conducted the most extensive review of research and evidence regarding the planning, impacts, and management of large dams. It had engaged with numerous stakeholders around the globe. It also made comprehensive recommendations about how to improve dam planning and management. 

The core of WCD’s new framework for dam decision-making became known as the “rights and risk approach”, and focused on stakeholder participation in planning and improved management of environmental and social impacts. The WCD recommendations also included five shared core values, seven strategic priorities, 26 concrete guidelines, and 33 policy principles, among others.

Perhaps more remarkable was, however, that WCD succeeded in producing a final report at all, signed by all its members, given that they represented opposing sides in the debate on large dams. The 12 Commissioners included renowned anti-dam activists and civil society representatives, dam engineers and industry, academics, and politicians from around the world. WCD was chaired by South Africa’s former Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Kader Asmal; its Secretary-General was Achim Steiner, who would go on to head UNEP and UNDP. It was supported by a small Secretariat of full-time staff in Cape Town, and a 68 member Stakeholder Forum that was meant to oversee its progress and activities.

Chile's Ralco Dam was completed in 2004, following much controversy and public debate in the lead-up to the World Commission on Dams in the 1990s.

Conflict around large dams

The 1990s had seen increasing polarisation and conflict around large dams. The World Bank withdrew from India’s Sardar Sarovar project in 1993, following fierce opposition from activist groups and an independent review that pointed out serious flaws in the handling of environmental and social impacts. Likewise, the World Bank ended financial support to Nepal’s Arun 3 project in 1995, following campaigns by environmental and social NGOs and extensive political debate in the country. A global coalition of social movements representing dam-affected people signed public declarations in Manibeli, India, in 1994, and in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1997. 

In 1996, the World Bank conducted an internal review of 50 World Bank funded dams that found that in most cases, implementing improved mitigation measures for environmental and social impacts would not have compromised their economic viability. Within this historical context, a consensus emerged at a 1997 stakeholder workshop hosted by the World Bank and IUCN in Gland, Switzerland, that a World Commission on Dams was needed to overcome dam-related conflict. 

WCD’s mandate was “to review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development” and “to develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams”.

In this sense, WCD is often described as an experiment in global governance: what, if heated debate and conflict was channelled into dialogue and cooperation among adversaries? There have been many global commissions, but few have so explicitly taken conflict as their starting point. The results were subject to much public scrutiny, as newspapers from all around the world reported on the conclusion of WCD’s work. While many industry representatives were disappointed that they had not received a simple and clear rulebook for building dams that would reduce public opposition and make business more predictable, many NGOs and activists felt vindicated, since the negative social and environmental impacts of large dams had finally been recognised by a global institution. 

The World Bank supported and rejected WCD at the same time, subscribing to WCD’s core values and strategic priorities, but not the 26 guidelines for dam planning and management. This middle-ground position was widely interpreted as a strategy to appease developing countries’ governments, most of whom had rejected WCD’s findings and recommendations. However, it may also reflect the personal influence of the World Bank’s Senior Water Adviser, John Briscoe, who became one of WCD’s most outspoken critics. 

Despite the overall mixed response, some institutions supported WCD. UNEP set up a follow-up dialogue process, the Dams and Development Project (UNEP-DDP), which lasted several years. The German government instructed its development cooperation sector to adhere to WCD guidelines. Sweden, Nepal, South Africa, and others organised national stakeholder consultations on dams, mimicking the WCD process.

Twenty years

Twenty years have passed since WCD dissolved. While there was a slowdown in dam construction in the immediate aftermath to WCD, dams are clearly back on the global agenda today. Thousands of large dams are being planned and built across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Balkans. Even India’s iconic target of anti-dam activism, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada Valley, was eventually completed, after much delay, in 2017, and the area is currently on track to becoming a major tourist attraction. Construction of Arun 3 in Nepal is well under way. 

In a world threatened by the ever-increasing impacts of climate change, dams, particularly those producing hydroelectric power, have once again become a popular development option. Supporters cite that they cause fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel alternatives, and can serve a stabilising and battery function in renewable energy systems otherwise facing variable wind speeds and sunshine hours. 

Yet that does not mean that controversies have disappeared. A review of the global dam literature suggests that conflicts around environmental and social impacts continue. At a technical level, this may indicate that cost-benefit analyses still do not adequately incorporate all negative impacts, leading to overly optimistic appraisals and insufficient mitigation of adverse effects. Yet, it is hard to find an ‘objective’ boundary for the indirect costs of dams and ultimately, it has to be decided on a case by case basis what counts and what does not. 

Another perpetual issue with dam construction is the uneven distribution of costs and benefits. While relatively small groups of people suffer intense negative impacts, when they need to be resettled or changed hydrological patterns affect their fishing or farming livelihoods, the benefits are much more diffusely spread among society at large. This can easily lead to conflict and confrontation. 

Finally, some have argued that the symbolic status of dams, visibly representing progress, economic development, and strength of nations may tilt politicians in developing countries in their favour, without detailed planning and assessment of alternatives.

Thus, it is worth asking: did WCD matter? What have been its impacts and legacies? And do such global governance forums make a difference in the longer term? Such questions are rarely asked or studied, despite the often substantial resources and time invested in these forums. Clearly, there is no one way to respond, as different commentators and stakeholders have assessed its influence in different ways.

What is clear, however, is that WCD has not been forgotten as it continues to serve as a reference point in debates and academic literature. In the last 20 years, dam critics have often referred to WCD when pointing out unsatisfactory management of adverse environmental and social impacts of dams, or when highlighting the plight of resettled and displaced people. In this sense, WCD served to raise awareness for these issues, and to give them legitimacy. Other topics that had been extensively covered by WCD failed to become similarly associated with it in the longer term though, for example WCD’s many reports on economic and financial issues.

Further impacts resulted from attempts to implement WCD’s recommendations. The dam industry, led by the International Hydropower Association, collaborated with various NGOs, the finance sector, and national governments to develop a Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), which claims to be WCD’s legitimate successor. It can be seen as an attempt to create a measurable and implementable set of guidelines that WCD had failed to provide, although it has found limited application to date. 

Many have attributed WCD’s relatively critical stance on dams to the more professional lobbying by NGOs and civil society at the time, which contrasted with a relatively passive approach by industry. Yet this experience may have served as a wake-up call for the dam industry to better organise and represent its interests. The increasing influence and growth of IHA following 2000 might be seen as evidence for such an interpretation. More generally, WCD had strongly emphasised public participation in planning, and such ideas have been gaining in popularity among those seeking to implement its recommendations and beyond, even if in practice, outcomes may differ widely.

For many of those who participated, what mattered in the long term were not so much concrete, traceable changes in dam policy, but the experience of having been part of WCD itself. The way it invited all stakeholders to tell their version of the dam story, and how it connected people who had been on opposing sides of the debate left a deep impression on many of its members, despite its undeniable imperfections. Many fondly recall WCD as a milestone in their professional careers. In today’s climate of uncompromising politics, an approach based on honest dialogue and mutual respect may offer lessons that retain their relevance, far beyond the field of dams.


Christopher Schulz is a Research Associate at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK