EPW    Special Articles May 26, 2001

WCD Recommendations and Framework for Decision-Making

Throughout the global review recent examples and illustrations of good practice are presented that form the basis of the commission’s optimism that these barriers are surmountable, and that the difficulties identified above are not inevitable. As a means of reducing negative impacts and conflicts, these experiences indicate that there are opportunities, and indeed a responsibility, to increase the efficiency of existing assets; avoid and minimise ecosystem impacts; engage in participatory, multi-criteria analysis of development needs and options; ensure that displaced and project-affected peoples’ livelihoods are improved; resolve past inequities and injustices, and transform project-affected people into beneficiaries; conduct regular monitoring and periodic review; and develop, apply and enforce incentives, sanctions and recourse mechanisms – especially in the area of environmental and social performance. The commission’s recommendations deliver a way forward that can improve planning, decision-making and compliance, and thereby capitalise on the options available – whether technological, policy or institutional in nature – and provide economically efficient, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable solutions to meet future water and energy needs.

In its final report the WCD put forth a series of recommendations for planning and decision-making process. The recommendations are relevant from the initial stage where various options for water and energy resources development are assessed to the selection of a particular intervention and all the stages from design, construction, monitoring and post facto review in cases where a dam emerges as a preferred intervention. WCD recommendations are meant to encompass new interventions and ongoing projects as well as opportunities and outstanding issues in the existing stock of large dams. These guidelines advocate a clear shift from traditional top-down and restricted decision making with the involvement of a few players to a more inclusive approach where all those whose rights maybe affected and those who are at risk from the decision will be actively involved in the decision-making process. The WCD guidelines not only describe the process that would enable such an inclusive decision-making to take place but also identify the appropriate conditions that need to be created and criteria fulfilled in order that the process is successful. Critical to this process are a series of strategic priorities that are articulated along with their underlying principles, rationale, manner of application and few enabling mechanisms.

The first priority is gaining public acceptance for a development decision. For any development process to enjoy widespread legitimacy it is important that the choice and selection of intervention gains public acceptance. While informed participation by all stakeholder groups is crucial to the demonstrated acceptance of key decisions, for all concerned groups to be able to influence the decision-making their legitimate right to participate must be ensured. This can only happen if recognition of their rights – legal or customary and assessment of potential risks to their lives and livelihoods is made a basis for active involvement in the decision-making process. Further the rights and entitlements of all groups of affected people; particularly indigenous and tribal peoples, women and other vulnerable groups are protected. And any decision on an anticipated project affecting indigenous and tribal peoples has to be guided by their free, prior and informed consent. In key decision stages, consent can be achieved through formal and informal representative bodies. For a truly open, inclusive and informed participatory process to take place, all stakeholders particularly indigenous and tribal peoples, women and other vulnerable groups must be provided access to information, legal and other support. Once the above conditions are put in place demonstrable public acceptance of all key decisions must be achieved through agreements negotiated in an open and transparent process.

The second priority is comprehensive options assessment. Development needs and objectives such as the need for water, food and energy must be assessed through an open and participatory process. Once the needs are identified in such a process, the appropriate development response must be selected from a range of possible options. Using the appropriate planning process, a comprehensive and participatory assessment of the full range of policy, institutional and technical options must be done to select an intervention or a combination of interventions. While assessing the various options, social and environmental aspects must be accorded the same high priority as economic and financial factors. In the assessment and selection of intervention, the option of increasing the effectiveness and sustainability of existing water, irrigation and energy systems must be given priority.

The third priority is addressing existing dams. The large stock of existing dams in many countries provide the opportunity to optimise services and enhance developmental benefits by addressing outstanding social issues and strengthening environmental mitigation and restoration measures. To identify developmental opportunities and outstanding issues in all existing large dams, a comprehensive post-project monitoring and evaluation process and a system of longer-term periodic reviews of the performance, benefits and impacts need to be initiated. Following that programmes to restore, improve and optimise benefits from existing large dams can be identified and implemented. Options to consider can include: rehabilitation, modernisation and upgrading of equipment and facilities; optimisation of reservoir operations; and introduction non-structural measures to improve the efficiency of delivery and use of services. To identify and assess outstanding social issues processes and mechanisms need to be developed with the affected communities for deciding on and implementing remedial measures. Similarly, the effectiveness of existing environmental mitigation measures must be assessed and unanticipated impacts identified such that opportunities for mitigation, restoration and enhancement are recognised, identified and acted on. If major physical changes to facilities or decommissioning is being considered, a full feasibility study including environmental and social impact assessment must be undertaken.

The fourth priority is sustaining rivers and livelihoods. Rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are the biological engines of the planet and in many parts of the world a basis for life and the livelihoods of local communities. Understanding, protecting and restoring ecosystems at river basin level is essential to foster equitable human development and the welfare of all species. Since interventions like dams transform landscapes and create risks of irreversible impacts, a basin-wide understanding of the ecosystem’s functions, values and requirements, and nature and extent of community dependence is required through a comprehensive assessment before decisions on development options are made. Options assessment and decision-making on river development must prioritise the avoidance of impacts, followed by the minimisation and mitigation of harm to the health and integrity of the river system. Avoiding impacts through good site selection and project design is a priority. When impacts cannot be avoided and in case of ongoing projects, a number of mitigation measures cannot be initiated such as modification in design and operation of dams to release environmental flows to help maintain downstream ecosystems and community livelihood, situating dams on tributaries rather than the main stem of the river, national policy to maintain selected rivers in their natural state.

The fifth priority is recognising entitlements and sharing benefits. In case a dam emerges as an intervention following options assessment, social impact assessment must include all people in the reservoir, upstream, downstream and catchment areas whose properties, livelihoods and non-material resources are affected. It must also include those affected by dam-related infrastructure such as canals, transmission lines and resettlement developments. Following the assessment and identification, there must be joint negotiations with adversely affected people resulting in mutually agreed and legally enforceable mitigation and development provisions. These development provisions must recognise and provide for entitlements that improve livelihoods and quality of life, and make affected people project beneficiaries. Successful mitigation, resettlement and development are fundamental commitments and responsibilities of the state and the developer and the onus is on them to satisfy all affected people that moving from their current context and resources will improve their livelihoods. In order to ensure accountability of responsible parties to agreed mitigation, resettlement and development provisions, resettlement and development provisions must be secured through legal contracts, and access to legal recourse at national and international levels.

The sixth priority is ensuring compliance. Ensuring public trust and confidence requires that governments, developers, regulators and operators meet all commitments made for the planning, implementation and operation of dams. Compliance with applicable regulations, criteria and guidelines, and with project-specific negotiated agreements should be secured at all critical stages in project planning and implementation. Further sponsoring, contracting and financing institutions must adopt a clear, consistent and common set of criteria and guidelines and compliance with this must be subject to independent and transparent review. A compliance plan should be prepared for each project prior to commencement, spelling out how compliance will be achieved and specifying binding arrangements for project-specific technical, social and environmental commitments. Costs for establishing compliance mechanisms and related institutional capacity, and their effective application, are built into the project budget and an appropriate mix of regulatory and non-regulatory measures, incorporating incentives and sanctions, must be used to ensure effectiveness. Corrupt practices must be avoided through enforcement of legislation, voluntary integrity pacts, debarment and other instruments.

The seventh priority is Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development and Security. Storage and diversion of water on trans-boundary rivers has been a source of considerable tension between countries and within countries. National water policies must make specific provision for basin agreements in shared river basins and agreements are negotiated on the basis of good faith among riparian states. They are based on principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation, no significant harm, prior information and the commission’s strategic priorities. Dams on shared rivers are not built in cases where riparian states raise an objection that is upheld by an independent panel. Intractable disputes between countries are resolved through various means of dispute resolution including, in the last instance, the International Court of Justice. For the development of projects on rivers shared between political units within countries, the necessary legislative provision is made at national and sub-national levels to embody the commission’s strategic priorities of ‘gaining public acceptance’, ‘recognising entitlements’ and ‘sustaining rivers and livelihoods’.

The strategic priorities recommended by the commission lie within a broad framework of existing and emerging policy and regulation at local, national and international levels. Turning these priorities and their underlying principles into reality requires a new focus for planning and management in the water and energy sectors. To enable this change in decision-making for overall improvement of outcome, the commission also identifies a series of criteria and guidelines and planning stages where these would be applicable. The commission has identified five critical decision points when water and energy options are considered. The first two relate to planning, leading to decisions on a preferred development plan: Needs assessment – validating the needs for water and energy services and selecting alternatives – identifying the preferred development plan from among the full range of options. Where a dam emerges from this process as a preferred development alternative, three further critical decision points occur: project preparation – verifying that agreements are in place before tender of the construction contract, project implementation – confirming compliance before commissioning and project operation – adapting to changing contexts.

Each of the five decision points represents a commitment to actions that govern the course of future conduct and the allocation of resources. They are points where ministries and government agencies need to test compliance with preceding processes before giving the green light to proceed to the next stage. They are not exhaustive, and within each stage many other decisions have to be taken and agreements reached. The five stages and associated decision points need to be interpreted within the overall planning contexts of individual countries. In the past social, environmental, governance and compliance aspects have been undervalued in decision-making. In light of this, the commission has developed extensive criteria and guidelines to complement the body of knowledge on good practices and to add value to current national and international guidelines, including those on technical, economic and financial aspects. Seen in conjunction with existing decision-support instruments, the commission’s criteria and guidelines provide a new direction for appropriate and sustainable development. The commission offers its criteria and guidelines to help states, developers and owners, as well as affected communities and civil society in general, meet emerging societal expectations when faced with the complex issues associated with dam projects. This will foster informed and appropriate decisions, thereby raising the level of public acceptance and improving development outcomes.


The thorough and critical examination of performance related factors of large dams was undertaken in the spirit of providing a direction as to how things could be done better, in order that past mistakes are not repeated in the future. The WCD recommendations are a unique and progressive contribution to the existing body of national and international policy, guidelines and legislation relevant to water and energy resource development broadly, and large dams specifically. After identifying the areas where lapses were most frequent and numerous in the past, the aim has been to strengthen these and remedy the current gaps in policy, guidelines, instituting new checks and balances for effective implementation and creating new guidelines for areas where none existed in the past. It was considered essential to address and remedy outstanding issues to improve the current conflict ridden situation and to ensure this past projects have been brought into the purview of these guidelines. Wherever relevant the attempt has been made to use the most progressive aspects of current policy, guideline and legislation, such as a particular country’s national legal framework, a multilateral bank policy, international declarations, etc.

Among the most important contribution of the WCD is the inclusion of non-state actors such as affected communities and groups in key decision-making stages. That along with the call for instituting an open and transparent process where key decisions is negotiated by stakeholders, from the earliest stages of development planning, legal security of settlements is ensured and mechanisms for recourse and compliance put in place, is in keeping with the current call for decentralisation, accountability and increased democratisation in development practise.

Since the role of WCD has been of an advisory nature, states, developers and financing agencies are not bound to use the recommended guidelines. However because these stakeholders were responsible for creating and enabling the WCD to fulfil its mandate, they are bound by good faith to continue the dialogue and implement the recommendations. In the current context the WCD report is the only legitimate instrument offering a way forward. The WCD was created for this very purpose by the negotiations and collaboration of key stakeholders in the dams debate, with the expressed desire of breaking the stalemate and improving outcomes. While the WCD outcome has been in keeping with its mandate, some states and other agencies have expressed their discomfort with the findings and recommendations. This position among certain groups of stakeholders is disappointing as it demonstrates their inability to keep faith with a process initiated and kept alive by protracted struggle and hard negotiation to which they were an active party.

It is simplistic and rhetorical to chide the WCD for failing to come out with a conclusion that dams are the best alternatives and not building dams would mean denying food to millions. All stakeholders played a very constructive role in facilitating the commission to achieve the mandate. The alternative to withdrawing from dialogue and creating further acrimonious encounters between stakeholders is greater and more constructive engagement in the follow-up of the WCD process. This dialogue can only have positive repercussions, in not just restoring confidence of all stakeholders to reach a settlement in the dams debate but also reaffirming the state’s commitment and responsibility towards equitable development.


[The WCD report is located at: www.dams.org, official website of the World Commission on Dams.]

1 According to the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), a large dam is 15 m or more high (from the foundation). If dams are between 5-15 metres and have a reservoir volume of more than 3 million cubic metres they are also classified as large dams.


WCD (2000): Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, Report of the World Commission on Dams, Earthscan, London and Sterling, VA.

Part A

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