EPW    Opinion March 24, 2001 

World Commission on Dams: Biased?

B N Navalawala

The World Commission on Dams (WCD) traces its roots back to the origins of the dams debate. Two other related factors painted the backdrop to its conception. The first is the accelerating shift in accepted notions of the appropriate relationship between the state and its citizens. The second is the increased recognition of the negative environmental and social outcomes experienced with large dams. Suspicion and mistrust between the proponents and critics of large dams threatened to dominate and undermine the discussions needed to reach agreements on ways to improve access to water and energy services. The need of both dams’ proponents and opponents to negotiate a new, agreed basis for assessing options and for planning, deciding, implementing and operating them, created conditions for setting up the WCD and giving it a mandate. In response to these, World Bank and World Conservation Union (IUCN), a global union of more than 800 governments, government agencies and NGOs sponsored a meeting between the champions and critics of large dams in Gland, Switzerland in April 1997.

The Gland workshop brought together a range of opinion to discuss the implications of the World Bank/OED Review of 50 Bank-funded dams, and found sufficient common ground to set in motion the process that led to the formation of WCD. The workshop identified key issues relating to the social, environmental, technical and financial aspects of dams that had to be addressed in reviewing the role of dams and their alternatives for sustainable development.The WCD was finally announced in February 1998 under the chairmanship of Kader Asmal, (the then minister for water affairs and forestry and later, minister of education in South Africa) assisted by 12 members. L C Jain and Medha Patkar were the members from  India.

The commission carried out a comprehensive global review of 125 dams and in-depth study of eight large dams in four continents. It cross-checked the survey of large dams located in 52 countries and had four regional consultations. It also examined two case studies in OED countries and six in developed countries and prepared country review studies for India and China. However, the report of the WCD has sidelined a number of key issues and the related problems that developing countries face. In this context, let us take the case of India. By 2050, our population will cross 1,500 million, resulting in a sharp increase in the demand for more drinking water, food and electricity supplies. The annual precipitation in India including snowfall has been estimated as 4,000 billion cubic metres (BCM) and the total annual water resources including both surface and groundwater is 1,953 BCM. As against this, approximately 690 BCM of surface water and 396 BCM from groundwater resources, making a total of 1,086 BCM can be put to economical use of which only 600 BCM is being currently utilised. More than 90 per cent of the annual run-off in peninsular rivers and more than 80 per cent of the annual run-off in Himalayan rivers occur during the months of June to September. The distribution of water resources is very uneven over space and time resulting in regions of harmful abundance and acute scarcity. Vast populations live in water scarce areas. Dams will, in many instances, be the only feasible alternative to alleviate poverty, hunger and deprivation on such a large scale. However, the WCD Report has unfortunately kicked off a row directed at stopping construction of new dams ignoring the fact that millions will be deprived of hope and subjected to avoidable prolonged misery.

Demand for Water

We have been able to create a live storage capacity of 174 BCM through completed major and medium projects and another 76 BCM of storage capacity is likely to be added from the projects under construction. Small tanks provide about 3 BCM, thus making available a total storage of 253 BCM. From identified future projects another 132 BCM can be added, making a total of 385 BCM.

Water requirement is closely related to population, demand for food, production of non-food agricultural and industrial items, production of energy and improvement in the quality of life and preservation of ecology and environment. The scenario by the year 2050 indicates that the country’s total water requirement to meet these needs barely matches the estimated utilisable water resources. Over the past four years, the Colombo-based International Water Management Institute has been developing scenarios of water supply and demand for 2025. Countries have been classified into four groups: about 90 per cent of India, barring far-flung southern and eastern parts, falls in the ‘physical water scarcity’ group and the remaining 10 per cent in the ‘economic water scarcity’ group. Physical water scarcity means that even with the highest feasible efficiency and productivity of water use, these areas do not have sufficient water resources to meet their agricultural, domestic, industrial and environmental needs in 2025. Economic water scarcity means that the areas have sufficient water resources to meet the 2025 needs but they will have to increase water supplies through additional storage, conveyance and regulation systems by 25 per cent or more over the 1995 levels to meet their 2025 needs.

Moreover, the Report (1999) of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan points out that India will need 320 million tonnes of foodgrains to feed the population of 1,333 million in the year 2025 and 494 million tonnes for the population of 1,581 million in the year 2050. The current foodgrain production is 205 million tonnes and there seems no possibility of further increase in the net sown area, i e, about 142 million ha. In the coming years, a substantial step-up of foodgrain production will have to come from increasing the productivity per hectare of cultivated land. Similarly, the electric power demand will sharply increase in the coming years – an estimated peak power demand by the year 2012 of 1,55,000 MW, corresponding to a total installed capacity of 1,95,000 MW against the present (October 31, 2000) installed capacity of about 1,00,000 MW in which hydropower’s share was just 24 per cent. With this, the total power generated was less by 10.8 per cent as compared to the peak demand. Total economically exploitable hydropower potential in India is assessed at 84,044 MW at 60 per cent load factor, corresponding to 1,48,700 MW of installed capacity. In addition, 56 pumped storage projects have been identified with installed hydropower potential of 94,000 MW. Also, hydropower potential from small, mini and micro schemes has been estimated to be 6,782 MW. In sum, India is endowed with a hydropower potential of about 2,50,000 MW of installed capacity. Against this, as on October 31, 2000, hydropower potential to the tune of only 24,712 MW (installed capacity) has been developed, comprising less than 10 per cent of viable potential.

It is attractive to argue to concentrate foodgrain production in rainfed, rather than in irrigated areas. However, there are three central problems of agriculture in rainfed areas. In most cases, rainfall is highly unreliable. Farmers rationally minimise their investments in labour, improved seeds, fertilisers, soil and water management and like to minimise losses due to drought. But, such inadequate investment in production inputs means that even when good rainfall occurs, the yield is not as large as it should be. Most of a farmer’s costs are the fixed cost of cultivating land, independent of yield. Thus, as yields decrease, net returns to farmers decrease even faster. Since rainfall affects large areas, price rise dramatically in times of drought, when there is nothing to sell and collapse in periods of good rainfalls, when harvests exceed subsistence needs and there is a lot to sell. For these and related reasons, contrary to what is commonly thought, a large shift to rainfed agriculture in many marginal areas could result in reduced productivity per unit of water consumed in agriculture.

The primary threats to sustainable irrigated agriculture are many. The continued growth of urban population and the rapid increase for industrial uses have led to a competition for water with the agriculture sector and there has normally been insufficient water to irrigate the total irrigable areas. The water quality in both groundwater and surface water resources has declined. Soil salinisation is increasing.

This water shortage is aggravating environmental degradation and human distress in a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment and migration. Further, the controversy over and polarisation of views on large projects and local resource development alternatives is totally uncalled for inasmuch as these two are complementary to each other and there is need for the whole range of structures – large to small – in trying to meet people’s requirements. It is against this scenario that efforts to conserve and develop the available water resources of the country to its optimum need to be understood. The WCD Report, unfortunately, does not seem to have recognised this ‘stark’ reality of developing countries.

Ill-Equipped for Tasks

The mandate given to WCD was: (1) To review of development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development. (2) To develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards, where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.

The commission, by itself was ill-equipped to analyse and study the data available on the development effectiveness of large dams. But, it could have used authentic information already available with various international organisations like, International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) (with 80 national committees), the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) (which too, has 94 national committees); Project Evaluation Reports of World Bank, etc, to arrive at conclusions instead of relying on the reports and submissions of the NGOs who have their own limited and to some extent ‘skewed’ perceptions on the subject and lacked a thorough knowledge and expertise needed for guiding such a body. The commission has indicated that its knowledge base consisted of eight case studies of large dams (out of these seven dams were planned and developed 20-70 years ago and are not recent ones), overall country review of India and China and cross-check survey proforma filled for 125 dams out of the existing 45,000 dams the world over. Thus, the WCD’s wisdom in suggesting/recommending “an agenda for change” is based on just a tiny fraction, i e, a quarter per cent, of case studies as compared to the present dam-affected population. For India, the country reviews were prepared mostly by people of limited field knowledge who ignored even the comments on the factual aspects of the country’s development furnished by the government of India.

The statistics provided in the report are open to many serious doubts particularly with regard to displacement of people affected by large dams (reportedly 40-80 million worldwide). The analysis of the data furnished indicates that displacement due to the dams in the rest of the world other than India and China prior to 1986 is almost nil, thus, exposing the fallacy of the statements made in the report. Similar disinformation is rampant in the report particularly with regard to Sardar Sarovar Project (Gujarat) for which one of the members of the commission has nothing but ‘rabid hate’. Thus, the data base on which the commission built-up its theories on large dams suffer not only from inaccuracies and inconsistencies, rocking the very foundation of their conclusions, but also from the mindset to perceive with objectivity. The commission should have studied and evaluated at least the availability of water in the world’s different regions without storage and the minimum amount of water needed to support the concerned population, before embarking on the negative impacts of the large dams and rushing to conclusions. It should have also carried out a study of the beneficial impact and the number of people benefited in comparison to the people displaced so as to make the report a balanced one.

As regards the mandate to assess alternatives for development, WCD has failed in making an objective and scientific assessment. The efficacy of small scale local solutions to meet the growing demand in the developing countries, has not been evaluated. Instead, ‘over-optimistic’ views of the future economies of largely untested technologies have been advanced in the report.

As regards the second task of developing guidelines, etc, the report fails to offer technical criteria and standards for the planning, design, construction, etc, including decommissioning of dams. Instead, it focuses principally on ‘what needs to be done differently’. The commission’s decision-making framework is based on five-core values – equity, sustainability, efficiency, participatory decision-making and accountability. However, while applying the concepts of equity and participatory decision-making, the commission appears to have been concerned only with the groups adversely affected by the dams and have, rather, preferred to ignore the beneficiaries who are also stakeholders. Similarly, while considering the sustainability criterion, the need of water scarce areas for fresh water input from outside to supplement their needs, has been totally ignored in the report. The commission has also not appreciated the compulsions of the developing countries – such as, the widespread underemployment and migration of rural labour, particularly tribals and weaker sections of the society in arid regions to faraway places for livelihood during non-monsoon months for want of irrigation, related works. The decision-making process recommended by the commission, such as, ‘free, prior and informed consent’, is also impractical and totally negates regional and national planning for economic development. The WCD has not been able to produce a report as per the mandate given to it. Its contents are full of generalities, not based on facts, the data quoted are selective, information provided is misleading and the conclusions drawn are biased.

[The views expressed by the author are his own and not necessarily of his employer/government of India.]


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