EPW    Special Articles May 26, 2001

World Commission on Dams

Democratic Means for Sustainable Ends

S Parasuraman
Sohini Sengupta

The issues in the debate on large dams are not merely about perfor-mance and impacts – it is about core issues and intractable problems with development that seems to elude a large number of people in developing countries. Dams have been the epitome of modernisation and state driven intervention in the development decades accounting for a large share of public investment in most countries. It is only right that dams are opened to public scrutiny with widespread debate on performance, benefits and negative impacts. The WCD process was a unique step towards this direction.

The WCD attempted to document a wide cross section of information, experiences and perspectives to unfold the dams’ story with all its nuances to the public arena. It aimed and succeeded to an extent in creating an informed public dialogue involving all stakeholders who were provided with an opportunity for equal say irrespective of their affiliations, allegiance and power. In the two years of its existence opinions and contributions were sought and findings, recommendations widely debated. The attempt at all times was to keep the dialogue open, introduce as many critical and contentious issues as possible for debate and ultimately use consultative exchange to draw out a set of recommendations to ensure that future interventions adhere to certain basic parameters for greater developmental benefits.

During the course of its tenure the WCD process has not just established a constructive dialogue across all positions but also inevitably demolished a number of established notions in its quest for a way forward. Not surprisingly the WCD report has stirred a hornet’s nest among some interest groups and establishments. Clearly the WCD process is a cause of much anguish to hardliners unable to look beyond the confines of their own restricted paradigm. What WCD has provided through its intensive two-year consultative process and its final report is an impartial and informed basis for continued dialogue in the public arena, a possible way forward that can be used constructively by those who are willing to discard their entrenched positions and biases to consider the whole story of dams and development.

Large Dams and Development

Humankind has used dams for thousands of years for irrigation and management and use of floodwaters. In the modern era captive storage of large volumes of water behind dams have served several other functions such as generation of hydropower and water supplies to expanding urban centres and industries. Interventions such as large dams have always involved substantial resources, organisation and know-how and therefore kingdoms and later states have played the most significant role in initiating such works. With the development and availability of sophisticated technology, first in Europe and the US and later in Asia, Africa and Latin America, modern dam building gained great impetus all over the world in pace with urbanisation, expanding population, intensive agriculture and growth of industries. From the 1930s to the 1970s the construction of large dams became – in the eyes of many – synonymous with development and economic progress. Viewed as symbols of modernisation and humanity’s ability to control and use nature’s resources, dam construction saw a dramatic increase. In this period, governments in most countries of the world were building increasing numbers of dams.

Today nearly half of the world’s rivers have at least one large dam and there are more than 45,000 large dams in the world.1  However, majority of the large dams are concentrated in a few countries, with China, US, India, Japan and Spain accounting for more than three-quarters of all large dams worldwide and approximately two-thirds of existing large dams are located in the developing countries. China alone accounted for 45 per cent of all large dams in the world. One-third of the countries in the world rely on hydropower for more than half their electricity supply, and large dams generate 19 per cent of all the electricity supplies in the world. Half the world’s large dams were built exclusively or primarily for irrigation, and some 30-40 per cent of the 271 million hectares irrigated worldwide rely on dams. Dam irrigated agriculture contributes between 12-16 per cent of world food production. For many nations, dams remain the largest single investment project in the country.

Large dams were systematically promoted as the single most important and effective intervention to meet the water and energy requirements of a growing population and an expanding, modernising economy. They came to be seen as the epitome of public welfare projects, providing a definitive logic for long term, strategic investments with their ability to deliver multiple benefits. Some of these additional benefits of dams such as regional development, job creation, and fostering an industry base with export capability, triggering economic growth and change was typical of other large-scale public infrastructure projects. These ripple effects were most often cited as additional considerations for building large dams. Other goals included creating income from export earnings, either through direct sales of electricity or by selling cash crops grown under assured irrigation or processed products from electricity-intensive industry such as aluminium refining. Dams were an important component of national interest investments and there were no doubts as to their role in generating a variety of resources to attain national developmental priorities aiming to address the needs of the economy and people.

During the last century, much of the world turned to dams to help meet escalating demands for water. This trend reached a peak in the 1970s, when on average two or three new large dams were commissioned each day somewhere in the world. In many countries such as India, large dam building peaked with the national priority of increased agricultural production coupled with greater availability of aid and soft loans from multilateral and bilateral agencies. The decline in dam building since then has been equally dramatic, especially in North America and Europe, where most technically attractive sites are already developed. In these countries the current trend is towards decommissioning some of the old dams. In the developing countries as well the trend towards dam building has declined with shifts in national economic priorities, drying up of financing, escalation of conflicts around social and environmental issues and general decline in large-scale state driven public infrastructure projects.

Hydropower, irrigation, water supply and flood control services were widely considered as sufficient justification for the significant investments made in dams. Other benefits such as implications for economic prosperity of a region due to multiple cropping, rural electrification and the expansion of physical and social infrastructure such as roads and schools often cited as well. The benefits were seen as self-evident and when balanced with the construction and operational costs – in economic and financial terms seem to justify dams as the most competitive option. Since the beneficial developmental contribution of dams was a foregone conclusion, post facto review, public accounting, etc, was virtually unheard of. However, with increasing awareness of social and environmental implications of large dams things started to change. As affected groups got better organised and informed by similar experiences from elsewhere clamouring grew for taking clear look at the dams. Since much of the adverse impacts of dams were justified against their multifarious benefits, it wasn’t long before questions began to be asked about the performance of dams against their professed objectives and whether there could have been other more benign means of attaining them. Thus, decision to build a large dam has been increasingly contested.

The debate on dams continued to be polarised where the proponents pointed out to the social and economic development demands that dams are intended to meet, such as irrigation, electricity, flood control and water supply, while the opponents point to the adverse impacts of dams, such as debt burden, cost overruns, displacement and impoverishment of people, destruction of important ecosystems and fishery resources, and the inequitable sharing of costs and benefits. The contest was by no means equal. The proponents were far better organised, had more resources and public opinion on their side, they were in many cases powerful states, dam industry and multilateral banks. The opponents were labelled as disgruntled, disruptive factions, unable to look at the bigger picture and attempting to stall progress for preserving minority groups against larger national interests. Things changed somewhat as green movements gained credibility, human rights campaign gained strength and opposition to dams till then existing as localised struggles got better organised with information, networking, research and some measure of public support. During the early stages of this process, debate and controversy focused on specific dams and their local impacts. But gradually these locally driven conflicts began to evolve into a more general and ultimately a global debate about dams and development. The decision to build a large dam today is rarely only a local or national one. The debate has been transformed from a local process of assessing costs and benefits to one in which dams in general are the focus of a global debate about development strategies and choices.

The issues in debate over dams are not just about water resources development and its distribution, it is also about the whole notion of public good. The controversy is to do with the very specific and characteristic impacts of large dams in terms of disrupted river flow, uprooting of existing settlements, destruction of culture and sources of livelihood of local communities and depletion and degradation of environmental resources; and generally about whether it is the best economic investment of public funds and resources. The debate is also about what has occurred in the past and continues to occur today despite greater information and in some contexts better legislative protection to those affected adversely. The debate is further concerned with what may unfold in the future if more dams are built.

The two principal poles in the debate illustrate the range of views on past experience with large dams. One perspective focuses on the gap between the promised benefits of a dam and the actual outcomes. The other view looks at the challenges of water and energy development from a perspective of ‘nation building’ and resource allocation. To proponents, the answer to any questions about past performance is self-evident, as they maintain that dams have generally performed well as an integral part of water and energy resource development strategies in over 140 nations and, with exceptions, have provided an indispensable range of water and energy services. Opponents contend that better, cheaper, more benign options for meeting water and energy needs exist and have been frequently ignored, from small-scale, decentralised water supply and electricity options to large-scale end-use efficiency and demand-side management options. Dams, it is argued, have often been selected over other options that may meet water or energy goals at lower cost or that may offer development benefits that are more sustainable and more equitable.

Although there is some agreement on such issues as the need to take environmental and social costs of dams more seriously and to consult systematically with affected people, deep fault lines still separate critics and proponents on a number of financial, economic, social and environmental issues. It is the argument supported by proponents that social and environmental impacts, to the extent that they can be predicted can also be dealt with through a combination of compensation and restoration. The critics hold that past experience with such efforts even when undertaken was unsatisfactory and the magnitude of impacts is too large and complex to be dealt with by any institution or state however well meaning. There were seemingly no meeting grounds in this situation where the contending parties were firmly holding on to their parts of the story.

WCD: A Way Forward

The World Bank (WB) has been the largest single source of external funding for large dams in the past and for its role come in for a fair share of criticism. In 1997 the World Bank’s operations evaluation department released the first evaluation of bank financed big dam projects. Internal and external disquiet about this review led the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) to convene a workshop to discuss the findings and initiate an open and transparent dialogue on key issues in the dams-debate. After a prolonged adversarial debate on the merits and demerits of large dams spanning the better half of the last century, the various contenders came together at a workshop in Gland to work towards a constructive solution to the stalemate. The meeting was remarkable in that it represented all the stakeholders in the dams-debate. From this workshop emerged the idea of an independent forum to review the development effectiveness of large dams globally. The principal objectives of the commission were to review the performance of dams and assess alternatives available for water and energy development. Among the outcomes of the review were to be a set of internationally applicable criteria and guidelines to guide future decision-making on assessment, design, planning, implementation, operation, monitoring and decommissioning in dam and non-dam options in water and energy resources development process.

Later to be called the ‘Gland Reference Group’, the stakeholders representing governments, multilateral and bilateral financial institutions, industries, NGOs and affected peoples groups, and water and energy resources development professionals agreed to create the WCD. The agreement was possible for two reasons. First, the reference group and the working body that arose from it followed a process of inclusiveness, independence, and transparency in their deliberations about what needed to be done. And second, because the stakeholders were confident that these guiding principles would be imbedded in the WCD’s constituent structures and work programme. Following the Gland meeting, the process of negotiating the form and mandate of the WCD was conducted by an Interim Working Group, which was a part of the Gland reference group and represented all the principal stakeholders.

The selection of the WCD chair, vice-chair and commission members was agreed keeping in mind fair representation of all the stakeholders in the dams-debate. The selection of Kader Asmal as chairman of the WCD, with impeccable credentials as a leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and as post-apartheid South Africa’s minister of water affairs (currently minister of education), was crucial to getting the process underway. After extensive consultations within the reference group, the chair invited 12 eminent persons to serve as commissioners. They were widely regarded as having integrity, representative of the perspectives of affected regions, communities and the private and public sectors and with considerable experience and expertise in their respective areas. They would not officially represent any stakeholder group or country but act in their individual capacities. Some national stakeholders complained when they found that a commission member from their country represented an “opposing” stakeholder group. However, the composition of the commission was such it was impossible for any one member to influence creation of the knowledge base – facilitated by a professional secretariat located in Cape Town, South Africa – conclusions and recommendations arising from it.

A key body in the WCD process is the WCD forum, more widely and deeply representative of all interests in the debate. The forum is a mix of former reference group members, new stakeholders and interest groups and consisted of around 70 members. In selecting the members of the forum, the WCD was guided by criteria such as relevance, balance and representation of a diversity of perspectives and interest groups and regions. The WCD negotiating process and work programme could not have got under way without the forum. It is primarily a mechanism for maintaining a dialogue between the WCD and the respective constituencies of the forum members. Thus, within the forum there were ad hoc groups representing the governments, river basin authorities, private sector, NGOs, affected peoples, donors, etc. The Indian and Chinese ministries of water resources were among several members representing governments in the forum.

All stakeholders agreed upon the mandate of the WCD, formulated after extensive negotiations in which no one group of stakeholders dominated the process and each respected the other’s right to be at the table. Thus, the vocally anti-dams International Rivers Network sat at the same table as the global corporate giant Asea Brown Boveri (ABB). The process was facilitated but not driven by the large multilateral institutions, and especially the World Bank. After a year of negotiations, the WCD was formally established. And the process had gained such legitimacy that the small number of intransigent organisations on both sides of the debate were left with no other option but participate to influence the outcome.

Components of WCD’s Work Programme

Depending on definitions, there are over 45,000 large dams around the world. The challenge that WCD faced in its inception was that it would never be able to individually examine every single one of the large dams in the world in its two-year tenure. The work programme thus had to be creatively organised, selective, representative and balanced to enable a creditable global review of large dams. To this end, the first phase of the commission’s work programme included four main activities: regional consultations; thematic reviews; the river basin/focal dam case studies and the cross check survey. Each activity aimed to gain insights at different levels, and on different aspects of the debate on dams and sustainable development.

The regional consultations were used as a medium for engaging diverse stakeholders in an open and clear dialogue on critical issues in the large dams-debate, and exchanging and collating the large body of information on practice, experiences, perspectives and lessons on large dams and their alternatives. Four regional consultations were organised at Colombo, Hanoi, Cairo and Sao Paulo covering South Asia, East and South East Asia, Africa and Middle East, and Latin America, respectively, in which 1,400 individuals from 59 countries made presentations. The WCD also participated in two hearings on large dams organised by NGOs in southern Africa (at Cape Town, South Africa) and Europe (at Bratislava, Slovakia). By being present where the dams debate is taking place, by listening to regional and national experiences in their own political and geographic context, and by holding open and public consultations, the commission’s learning was substantially enriched.

To reach out to a wider cross section of concerned groups, individuals and organisations interested and involved in various aspect of the debate all over the world, submissions in the form of research papers, government documents, testimonies, etc, were requested and received from them. The WCD sought submissions through its web site, regular newsletters and those through its numerous stakeholder consultation processes as an integral part of other work programme processes such as the river basin/focal dam basin case studies and thematic reviews. The commission received 947 submissions from over 80 countries from organisations and individuals ranging from the dam construction industry, project-affected people, governments, local, national and international NGOs and networks, academics and researchers, international organisations, dam operators, water utilities and power companies, and industry professionals involved in appraisal, design, operation or decommissioning of dams. The extensive wealth of information generated by the submissions contributed substantially to the final report.

The WCD commissioned 17 thematic reviews on issues critical to the dams-debate. Designed to document the experience and lessons learned on cross-cutting topics central to the debate on large dams and their alternatives, the thematic reviews were around social and distributional issues, environmental issues, economic and financial issues, options assessment and institutional processes. The thematic reviews were set out to clarify areas of common ground or contention around highly controversial issues, and based on findings, experiences, opinions and perspectives to devise a way forward in each of the selected areas. The thematic reviews, their contributing papers and the special working papers were based on the experience of institutions and experts from around the world and covered considerable area in terms of regions, number of dams, dams in different periods of time – past, recent and ongoing and a range of issues and perspectives. The WCD integrated contributions from more than 300 writers, reviewers and submissions in the thematic review process. Each of the thematic papers were produced by global teams reflecting a diversity of approaches to the themes, and draft thematic papers were peer-reviewed and contributions from interested forum members and other organisations and individuals were taken into account.

Ten case studies involving dams in the river basin context enabled the WCD to have a focused, in depth examination and analysis of various performance related factors and other issues of contention. The case studies also explored and analysed various stages and processes of decision-making that influenced outcomes in the concerned projects. The countries in which the commission conducted case studies included Brazil, China, India, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, the US, Zambia and Zimbabwe. While eight case studies explored a specific dam within the context of river basin, the country studies on India and China analysed performance and development outcome of dams in general. Preliminary testing of case study methodology was done through a pilot study of the Orange River Development Project in South Africa. The case/country studies were selected on the basis of regional representation, level of information availability, accessibility to conduct the case study and other factors such as, age, function, magnitude of impacts, reservoir size, catchment area and ecology and dams with articulated good practice. The principal aim of the case studies were to understand and determine, how actual costs and benefits compared with original projections, what were the unintended costs and benefits; who gained and who lost as the overall result of the dam project; whether the project complied with existing criteria and guidelines, how were key decisions made and whether such a project would be undertaken in the current context. The case study methodology involved four stages – scoping, data verification and preliminary analysis, a stakeholder workshop and drafting the final report. The study team incorporated the results of the stakeholder workshop with additional analysis into a draft final report. The draft report was once again circulated to stakeholders and the international community for comment before being finalised and submitted to the WCD commissioners.

The commission also conducted a focused cross-check survey of 125 dam projects covering all regions of the world. The cross-check survey yielded information on the performance of the surveyed projects and insights into how planning processes have changed over the past 50 years. The mix of 125 large dams that make up the cross-check survey included dams with a range of different heights and sizes; dams of differing ages – dating from the 1930s through to the 1990s; dams that perform various functions – for example, water supply, irrigation, flood management, power and recreation. Results from the 125 dams cross-check survey included the percentage of dams that achieved their project objectives in different sectors and the percentage of projects that included environmental impact assessments over time. This review added to the insights from the case studies and thematic reviews, while furnishing an important empirical dimension to the commission’s knowledge base. Data for the cross-check survey came primarily from government sources, dam financing institutions and international consultancy organisations; and collected by consultants familiar with and access to the data sources.

At each of the work programme activity, intensive review and consultations were undertaken with a wide spectrum of stakeholders. The governments, NGOs and other interested parties were invited to cross-check the data collected and provide additional information. For example, Institute of Public Auditors of India collected the data related to six dams selected for the cross-check survey in India. The government of India and NGOs were requested to make submissions. The commission made use of all possible opportunities to validate the data collected. Since dams are made and operated by governments, funded by multilateral and bilateral organisations, technical standards are set and monitored by international associations the WCD took care to access data and information available with those sources. The WCD accessed data and documents from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, most bilateral agencies, the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) and International Hydropower Association (IHA) and other agencies, institutions and consultancies engaged in water and energy resources development and management. The commission also accessed information available with people’s groups and international NGO networks. The commission also brought in experts with varying perspectives based in developing and developed countries to provide specific inputs to the process.

Between the case studies, thematic review, various supporting material and contributing papers, cross-check survey, the WCD work programme effectively covered a range of large dams that were representative not only through their regional spread, but also reflective of other parameters such as size, age, location, institutional context, best practice examples in social and environmental performance, etc. Information sources were diverse and attempts were made to tap the best available expertise and databases on specific aspects. At each stage of the development of the work programme consultative mechanisms provided the opportunity for diverse perspectives to influence and contribute to the process. At the same time efforts were made to retain independence and impartiality and the authenticity of the information and data was extensively verified. While regional specificities were important and kept in mind at all points in time during the final analyses, there was sufficient information and findings that were common for large dams across the world. It was only through a combination of all these special efforts in the work programme that WCD final report was able to draw out findings and recommendations that are representative and globally applicable. No doubt that in all this the WCD process was hampered by the lack of systematic post-facto information on all aspects for most of the large dams, but that in itself was an important finding. The commission with its specialised task, unique mandate and composition was able to overcome this to achieve a substantial and creditable knowledge base.

Key Findings and Implications

To understand where the debate is headed and gain insights into the various aspects of dams, past experiences and future trends it will be important to consider the key findings and recommendations of the WCD. One of the important implication of these findings are greater information, understanding and insight into how decisions to build large dams were arrived at, who were the principal decision-makers, what aspects were considered in appraisal, what were the consequences, what would need change in future, what would have to be avoided and which practices replicated, how would this change take place and what were the outstanding issues, etc. Two years of intensive review and consultations, led to a series of key conclusions about large dams organised around a few strategic aspects.

Technical, Financial and Economic Performance

Technical, financial and economic performance was among the principal areas of review. Unlike the general understanding that all large dams have delivered their professed objectives optimally and efficiently in all cases, the degree to which large dams in the WCD knowledge base have delivered services and net benefits as planned varied substantially from one project to the next, with a considerable portion falling short of physical and economic targets. This is not to deny the still considerable amount of services produced by dams but is definitely indicative of far greater variability and unreliability in performance than held generally. Irrigation dams were found to have typically fallen short of physical targets while being unable to recover costs and less viable in economic terms. In contrast hydropower dams have tended to meet their financial targets but demonstrated variable economic performance. Large dams built for municipal and industrial water supply have generally fallen short of intended targets for timing and delivery of bulk water supply and have exhibited poor financial cost recovery and economic performance. Dams with a flood control component have also led to greater vulnerability to flood hazards to settlement in flood prone areas, and in some cases have worsened flood damages for a number of reasons, including poor operation of dams. Often multi-purpose dams experienced greater shortfalls than single purpose dams due to over-optimistic targets.

According to the knowledge base findings, large dams with their long gestation period and need for considerable financial investment had a marked tendency towards schedule delays and significant cost overruns. This has great implication for the financial and economic viability of an investment, besides impact on availability of resources for other interventions. Much before the WCD process was underway, in countries like India, it was fairly well documented that, large dam projects are characterised by large difference in estimated capital cost and actual expenditure indicating high cost overruns compounded by delays in project completion. According to the 1973 report of the expert committee on rise in costs of irrigation and multipurpose projects, revised estimates of 64 major projects were on an average 108 per cent higher than approved estimates. The 1983 Public Accounts Committee (PAC) indicated an average cost overrun of 232 per cent in 159 projects and more than 500 per cent overrun in 32 projects. Cost discrepancies have a bearing on the benefit-cost ratio of the projects. Being one of the key appraisal criteria any changes lowering this ratio puts economic feasibility of dam projects seriously under cloud. Moreover implications are far more serious for developing countries with large number of unfinished and under performing projects in the light of scarce public finances, urgent needs and large-scale poverty.

The review also examined factors related to the physical sustainability of large dams and their benefits. As the stock of dams age, maintenance costs rise and climate change possibly alters the hydrological regime used as a basis for the design of dam spillways, ensuring dam safety will require increasing attention and investment. Of greater significance to countries with agrarian economies is the high rate of waterlogging and salinity affecting developed agricultural land in irrigation command areas of dams. Waterlogging and salinity affect one-fifth of irrigated land (from all sources) globally and have severe, long-term and often permanent impacts on land, agriculture and livelihoods where rehabilitation is not undertaken. The service delivery capacity of dams is compromised by sedimentation and consequently long-term loss of storage. This is currently a serious concern globally, and the effects will be particularly felt by basins with high geological or human-induced erosion rates, dams in the lower reaches of rivers and dams with smaller storage volumes.

Ecosystems Impact

Environmental concerns have occupied the centre stage of developmental thinking in recent years. Large dams have continued to attract attention on this count due to their increasingly well-established generic nature of the impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity and downstream river regimes. The creation of a large dam reservoir necessarily involves inundation of a large area and this has led to the loss of forests and wildlife habitat, the loss of species populations and the degradation of upstream catchment areas. The dam alters the existing river regime and acting as a physical barrier to species migration, nutrient exchange, etc, has contributed to the loss of aquatic biodiversity and upstream and downstream fisheries. Among the previously neglected but increasingly well known impact of dam impacts was the altered flood regime of rivers adversely affecting downstream floodplains, wetlands, and riverine, estuarine and adjacent marine ecosystems. Where a number of dams have been sited on a river the cumulative impacts on water quality, natural flooding and species composition were complex, leading to considerable losses, much of which could remain undetected for long periods of time. In some cases, enhancement of ecosystem values does occur, through the creation of new wetland habitat and the fishing and recreational opportunities provided by new reservoirs. But in many cases, large dams have led to significant and irreversible loss of species and diverse ecosystems.

In recent years, the impacts of possible emission of greenhouse gases from reservoirs on global climate change have raised concern. The commission found that reservoirs sampled so far by scientists all emit greenhouse gases, as do natural lakes, due to the rotting of vegetation and carbon inflows from the catchment. The scale of such emissions is highly variable. Preliminary data from a case study hydropower dam in Brazil show that the gross level of these emissions is significant, relative to emissions from equivalent thermal power plants. However, in other reservoirs studied (notably those in boreal zones), gross emissions of greenhouse gases are significantly lower than the thermal alternative. More research and measurements of the emissions from natural pre-impoundment habitats would be needed to determine the climate change inducing characteristics of artificial reservoirs.

Apart from documenting the nature, extent and consequences of ecosystem impacts, the WCD process examined the experiences with environmental assessment at appraisal, the extent to which this influenced decisions, nature of impact management – compensation, restoration activities, the manner of implementation, effectiveness of these interventions to address the losses, instances of success/failure and the reasons, etc. According to the findings, efforts to date to counter the ecosystem impacts of large dams have met with limited success. In most cases due to the lack of attention to anticipating and avoiding such impacts, the poor quality and uncertainty of predictions, the difficulty of coping with all impacts and partial implementation and success of mitigation measures. It is now increasingly apparent that it is not possible to mitigate many of the impacts of reservoir creation on terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity. Even the use of fish passes, incorporated in more number of dams today, to mitigate the blockage of migratory fish has had little success, as the technology has often not been tailored to specific sites and species. Among other mitigation efforts, apportioning a share of water for environmental uses through concepts such as ‘environmental flow requirements’ (which include managed flood releases) are increasingly used to reduce the impacts of changed stream flow regimes on aquatic, floodplain and coastal ecosystems downstream. However determining the exact quantum and periodicity of release as required by the entire downstream floodplain system is still a tricky process and at an experimental stage. Moreover experience with dams in Africa has shown that political considerations may often prioritise over whether environmental flow releases despite being an articulated aim is actually undertaken.

Given the limited success of traditional mitigation measures, increased attention through legislation is now given to avoidance or minimisation of ecological impacts through setting aside particular river segments or basins in their natural state and through the selection of alternative projects, sites or designs. In addition, governments are experimenting with a ‘compensatory’ approach of offsetting the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity caused by a large dam through investment in conservation and regeneration measures and through protection of other threatened sites of equivalent ecological value. Finally, in a number of industrialised countries, but particularly in the US, ecosystem restoration is being implemented as a result of the decommissioning of large and small dams.

Despite a wealth of experience, range of mitigation measures and a sufficiently well developed legal framework in many countries to tackle the ecosystems impact of large dams, non-compliance with existing norms and promised mitigation measures remains high. For instance in countries like India, a large number of projects have proceeded towards completion without obtaining the mandatory environmental clearance from the concerned ministry, or on obtaining conditional clearance have failed fulfil the clearance conditions. The fact that no action was taken on these accounts indicates the continued disregard and lack of priority accorded to environmental aspects. Governments often justify their disregard of environmental issues by affirming their greater commitment to need fulfilment, as though these were seemingly incompatible areas. While environmental conservationism might not be the priority of the developing world, preventing ecological degradation and ensuring sustainability of livelihoods through judicious use, definitely is. In fact the loss of rich and diverse natural ecosystems maybe even more detrimental to the economy of these countries and the survival of its people considering the limited capacity to account for and mitigate the losses and recover the lost resources.

Social Impact

In terms of the social impacts of dams, the commission found that the negative effects were frequently neither adequately assessed nor accounted for. The range of these impacts is substantial, including on the lives, livelihoods and health of the affected communities dependent on the riverine environment. Most development decisions involving displacement of people are made without a full assessment of social impacts. Despite greater awareness and improved policy guidelines, projects implemented even in the 1990s started without or inadequate assessment. Impacts on downstream livelihoods were, in many cases, not adequately assessed or addressed in the planning and design of large dams.

The commission found that all over the world, dams have physically displaced an estimated 40–80 million people. Millions of people living downstream from dams – particularly those reliant on natural floodplain function and fisheries – have also suffered serious harm to their livelihoods and the future productivity of their resources has been put at risk. Many of the displaced were not recognised (or enumerated) as such, and therefore were not resettled or compensated. Where compensation was provided it was often inadequate, and where the physically displaced were enumerated, many were not included in resettlement programmes. Those who were resettled rarely had their livelihoods restored, as resettlement programmes have focused on physical relocation rather than the economic and social development of the displaced. Further, larger the magnitude of displacement, the less likely it is that even the livelihoods of affected communities can be restored.

A lack of legal frameworks to enforce compliance contributed to the impacts of displacement going unmitigated. In the process of creating dams, the highest risks were borne by society’s most vulnerable groups – indigenous and tribal peoples, pastoral communities, fisher people and floodplain agriculturists. With avenues for recourse being largely inaccessible, unavailable or ineffective, impoverishment and social decline were inevitable. In sum, the knowledge base demonstrated a generalised lack of commitment or lack of capacity to cope with displacement. In addition, large dams in the knowledge base have also had significant adverse effects on cultural heritage through the loss of cultural resources of local communities and the submergence and degradation of plant and animal remains, burial sites and archaeological monuments. The global review confirmed that there is good cause for the intense struggle of dam-affected people that resulted from widespread damage to livelihoods, health, culture and welfare and impoverishment induced by dams and related infrastructure.

The knowledge base indicated that the poor, other vulnerable groups and future generations are likely to bear a disproportionate share of the social and environmental costs of large dam projects without gaining a commensurate share of the economic benefits. Indigenous and tribal peoples and vulnerable ethnic minorities have suffered disproportionate levels of displacement and negative impacts on livelihood, culture and spiritual existence. Affected populations living near reservoirs as well as displaced people and downstream communities have often faced adverse health and livelihood outcomes from environmental change and social disruption. Among affected communities, gender gaps have widened and women have frequently borne a disproportionate share of the social costs and were often discriminated against in the sharing of benefits.

Where such inequities exist in the distribution of the costs and benefits, the global review emphasises that the ‘balance-sheet’ approach to adding up the costs and benefits is increasingly seen as unacceptable on equity grounds and as a poor means of choosing the ‘best’ projects. In any event, the true economic profitability of large dam projects remains elusive, as the environmental and social costs of large dams were poorly accounted for in economic terms. More to the point, failures to account adequately for these impacts and to fulfil commitments that were made have led to the impoverishment and suffering of millions, giving rise to growing opposition to dams by affected communities worldwide. Innovative examples of processes for making reparations and sharing project benefits are emerging that provide hope that past injustices can be remedied and future ones avoided.

It is surprising that governments continue to view the adverse social impacts of a large dam as inevitable and to an extent justified when pitched against the proverbial millions of beneficiaries of large dams. Irrespective of the benefits, disregarding the rights of those displaced, dispossessed and disentitled is not compatible either with equity or social justice. Often the overwhelming needs of the vast populations in developing nations are given as the reasons for going ahead with development projects and for not having stringent standards of equity and rights that are considered more suitable for the developed countries. The proclamation and practise of this amazing duplicity of standards that make some human beings more dispensable than others begs the question that whether development projects which need such justifications are really about development? An informed and open public debate about the nature, extent of losses and the ability, will and demonstration of institutions to mitigate these losses supported by more democratic decision-making are the ways out of this situation. The strident refusal of some states to enter into dialogue on such issues or acknowledge the real losses can be interpreted as failing to be accountable for the consequences and taking responsibility for appropriate mitigation measures. Current objections to the WCD report for ‘kicking up a row in the wrong direction’ is an example of such reactions against an attempt to enable informed debate on all possible aspects of the large dams and related issues.

Water and Energy Resources Development

For a complete perspective on the large dams debate, it is essential to understand the nature and availability of other possible options for water and energy resources development. The WCD global review examined the options for meeting energy, water and food needs in the current context and the barriers and enabling conditions that determine choice or adoption of particular options. Many options currently exist – including demand-side management (DSM), supply efficiency, and new supply options – to meet irrigation, energy, water supply and flood management. These can all improve or expand water and energy services and meet evolving development needs across all segments of society. For optimising developmental benefits, these options have to be viewed in an integrated fashion to reach the most appropriate combination of interventions.

Options include both demand-side management include reduced consumption, recycling and technological and policy options that promote efficiency of water and power at the point of end-use and various supply-side measures. DSM has significant untapped and universal potential and provides a major opportunity to reduce water stress and power requirements as well as achieve other benefits such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, improving system management can defer the need for new sources of supply by enhancing supply and conveyance efficiency. Needless loss of power and water can be avoided through reductions in water leakages from the system, keeping up with system maintenance and upgrading of control, transmission and distribution technology in the power sector. All these measures are equally relevant for developing and developed countries. In these regions, the urban centres have very high consumption levels of power and water and there is considerable scope in improving the efficiency, availability and access of these services by plugging distribution loss, leakages, etc.

Currently, there is considerable potential in improving the output and sustainability of supply from existing interventions especially in case of irrigation dams and canals through basin and catchment management. Regenerating vegetative cover as well as other structural measures offers an opportunity across all sectors to reduce sedimentation of reservoirs and canals and to manage the timing and quantity of peak, seasonal and annual flows, as well as groundwater recharge. Further a number of supply options have emerged that are locally and environmentally appropriate, economically viable and acceptable to the public, including recycling, rainwater harvesting and wind power. The ability of various options to meet existing and future needs or to replace conventional supplies depends on the specific context, but in general they offer significant potential, individually and collectively.

Any discussion on options in the context of large dams is liable to trigger the old argument of small versus large, with the proponents and opponents vociferously pointing out the respective merits and demerits of each. The WCD did not attempt to delineate preferred options in terms of their size but on other more relevant parameters such as appropriateness with respect to the context, in terms of articulated needs, availability of resources, level of public acceptance, most sustainable and efficient use of scarce resources, capacity of community and institutions to use and maintain, extent and irreversibility of adverse impacts, etc. Most importantly WCD recommends a comprehensive assessment process during decision-making that would enable the selection of the best possible combination of options. Some establishments are interpreting this as a complete rejection of large dam as an option. While WCD provides a detailed account of the, nature, availability, potential and characteristics of a range of options in water and energy resources development, it does not at any point in time reject dams. The WCD report explicitly considers dams as one of the option in assessment and if dams fulfils the required criteria that other options need to meet as well there is no reason why it would not emerge as the preferred option or one of the options in an integrated combination of interventions. What WCD does not do is liberate the dams from the assessment process to support the notion that in all cases, in all contexts, despite past experiences and new developments, dams remain the best option.

Decision-Making, Planning and Compliance

As a development choice, large dams with their large financial requirements and highly visible outcomes often became a focus of interests for politicians, centralised government agencies, international financing agencies and the dam-building industry. Involvement of the civil society is of much recent origin and varies with the degree of debate and open political discourse in a country. However, affected people have rarely been recognised as rightful partners in the planning process and allowed as opportunity to participate.

While foreign assistance has accounted for less than 15 per cent of total funding for dams in developing countries, more than $4 billion per year were from these sources during the peak period of lending in 1975–84. Moreover these agencies played an important role in promoting and financing large dams in several countries. These countries have often been vulnerable to conflicts between the interests of governments, donors and industry involved in foreign assistance programmes, on the one hand, and improved development outcomes for rural communities, particularly the poor, on the other hand. To a lesser extent this assistance has also supported larger countries seeking to build many dams (including China, India and Brazil), primarily through the provision of finance for dam-building programmes. In shared river basins, the lack of agreements on water use is an increasing concern and cause for tension, particularly as demands grow and unilateral decisions by one country to build large dams alter water flows within a basin, with significant consequences for other riparian states.

Evaluation of the planning and project cycle for large dams revealed a series of limitations, risks and failures in the manner in which these facilities have been planned, operated and evaluated. It is generally agreed that planning processes for large dams were neither inclusive nor open. In many decision-making on water and energy resources development began with an existing dam site and subsequent exercises such as options assessment, etc, were typically limited to technical parameters and the narrow application of economic cost-benefit analyses. Some of the problems of performance and serious impacts can be attributed to insufficient appraisal, limited appraisal criteria and high degree of non-compliance with whatever limited norms that existed. The assessment of social and environmental aspects were inadequate, routinely neglected and seldom influenced decisions to go ahead with a particular project. The paucity of monitoring and evaluation activity once a large dam was built impeded learning from experience. The net effect of these difficulties is that once a proposed dam project has passed preliminary technical and economic feasibility tests and attracted interest from government, external financing agencies or political interests, the momentum behind the project often prevails over further assessments. As a result, many dams were not built based on a comprehensive assessment and evaluation of the technical, financial and economic criteria applicable at the time, much less the social and environmental criteria that applied then and in today’s context. That many such projects have not met standards applicable in either context is therefore not surprising, but nonetheless a cause for concern.

Conflicts over dams stem also from the failure of dam proponents and financing agencies to fulfil commitments made, observe statutory regulations and abide by internal guidelines. In some cases, the opportunity for corruption provided by dams as large-scale infrastructure projects further distorted decision-making, planning and implementation. Whereas substantial improvements in policies, legal requirements and assessment guidelines have occurred, particularly in the 1990s, it appears that business is often conducted as usual when it comes to actual planning and decision-making. Moreover, where substantial differences arise between proponents and those potentially affected, efforts to modify plans and decisions often must resort to legal or other action outside the normal planning process. Regional consultations held by the commission underscored that past conflicts remain largely unresolved and many issues outstanding for a number of reasons, including poor experience with appeals, dispute resolution, inadequacy of recourse mechanisms and capacity to enforce accountability from the dam promoting agencies.

Some countries justify the restricted nature of decision-making on large dams by making a case for national sovereignty. This rationale is hardly credible since from the earliest era of dam building external aid, technology and influence were critical elements of decision-making. This is more so in the current scenario of globalisation where external dictates on the economy rather than local needs are shaping national policies. For instance in India, in the early era of dam building young CWC engineers were trained in the US and the Damodar valley corporation project was closely modelled on the Tennessee Valley dams. This was not an unusual or isolated occurrence. It is now well established that large dam building was kick started and gained currency through the support and propagation efforts of the US Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corp of Engineers’ in a number of newly independent countries in Latin America and Asia. Therefore the commonly spouted theory about modern large dam building being entirely home grown and drawn from the repository of rich tradition is misguiding. Here it is essential to distinguish between earthen dams and canals built by ruling dynasties in ancient India and the modern era of dam building, which were of an essentially different nature, technologically and in the underlying political economic context.

Part B

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