World Commission on Dams

Even if you’re not connected in any way with large scale hydro around the world, this major report issued last week is significant. Imagine the boost to distributed generation and renewables if world opinion rallies against big dams.

The Commission has an extensive website of its own which has more than you’ll ever want to know, including the complete report available to download.

The site has links to dozens of press accounts of the announcement last week. (I first heard about it in this week’s Economist.) Here is a good overview which arrived here today in an email newsletter. At least it could take your mind off Florida for a few minutes.

World Commission Takes Tough Stance on Dams

LONDON, England – Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development but, in too many cases, the social and environmental costs have been unacceptable and often unnecessary, according to the final report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD).

Dams deliver significant development services in 140 countries and generate 19 percent of the world’s electricity, the WCD says in ‘Dams And Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making.’ The report was released today in London, with former South African President Nelson Mandela as the group’s spokesman.

Dams account for 12 to 16 percent of global food production, and 12 percent of large dams supply domestic and industrial water, as well as provide flood control services in 70 countries. However, they have also demonstrated a marked tendency towards schedule delays and cost overruns, and have led to the loss of forests and wildlife habitat and the loss of aquatic biodiversity of upstream and downstream fisheries, the report notes.

“Large dams display a high degree of variability in delivering predicted water and electricity services and related social benefits – with a considerable portion falling short of physical and economic targets,” while others continue to generate benefits after 40 years. The WCD also found that efforts to counter the ecosystem impact of large dams have met with limited success, and the “negative social impacts reflect a pervasive and systematic failure to assess and account for the range of potential negative impacts on displaced and resettled people as well as downstream communities.”

Some estimates suggest that as many as 80 million people have been displaced by dams around the world, while the livelihoods of many more who live downstream have been affected. Mitigation, compensation and resettlement programs are often inadequate, it notes.

The report authors claim the final document provides the most comprehensive and independent review of dams, and examines the technical and economic performance of dams, as well as their environmental and social performance, and assesses the potential alternatives to dams to offer insights into “one of the most of the controversial development debates of our time.” A number of environmentally and economically viable supply options are emerging, including wind and solar energy, but “obstacles such as market, institutional, intellectual and financial barriers limit the adoption rate” of other renewable energy alternatives, it explains.

The final report seeks to turn costly controversies into clear and productive consensus, and the WCD claims that it has brought together, for the first time, all parties in the increasingly confrontational debate about the role that 45,000 large dams have played in development around the world. The report is the result of two years of consultation in an “unprecedented global public policy process” that was signed unanimously.

“It is one thing to find fault with an existing system,” says Mandela. “It is another thing altogether, a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better.”

The report proposes a framework for decision-making that moves beyond the simple tradeoffs of costs and benefits, to include a ‘rights and risks approach’ that recognises all legitimate stakeholders in the negotiation of choices. It proposes a set of core values, strategic priorities, and practical criteria and guidelines to govern future water and energy resources development, and challenges governments and other parties to change the way they view energy and water resources development.

“It means nothing to build billion-dollar dams if your monuments alienate the weak,” says WCD chairman Kader Asmal. “It means nothing to stop all dams if your protests only entrench poverty. But show me a clear and sustainable way to provide food, energy, stability and running water for those who most need it — that means something. And that we have done.”

The WCD conducted detailed reviews of large dams in the United States, Turkey, Norway, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, Brazil and South Africa, and surveyed 125 large dams and reviews on environmental and economic issues. It recommends 26 guidelines for review and approval of dam projects at five key stages.

“The WCD urges governments, NGOs, businesses, professional associations, aid agencies, utilities and affected peoples to practice what we preach because we preach only what we have practised ourselves,” concludes Asmal. “We listened to all sides. We reviewed alternatives. We balanced ideal against possible and made our decision to sign this report with confidence. We exclude only one development option: inaction. The cost of conflict is too high.”

“Dams offer huge benefits but sometimes at a large cost,” says James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, which funds less than 1 percent of dam projects in the world. “Our involvement in large dams has been decreasing and is focusing more on financing dam rehabilitation and safety and much less on financing new dams.”

Until 1985, the World Bank financed 3 percent of new dams. There are 800,000 dams around the world, of which approximately 45,000 are categorized as large or higher than 15 m. The industry is estimated to be worth $42 billion.