The Debate on Big Dams

V. Venkatesan

Dams and Development : A New Framework for Decision-Making; The Report of the World Commission on Dams; Earthscan Publication Ltd., London, 2000.

The debate on big dams has often been a simplistic one: depending on the stand you take, you can easily find arguments that would sustain your position. The Supreme Court judgment in October 2000 on the Sardar Sarovar Dam is an example; the majority of judges, who let the construction of the dam to continue, dwelt on the merits of big dams in their judgment, quite oblivious of the strong, cogent arguments against such dams. While the proponents of big dams often tend to underestimate the impact of such structures on the environment and on the people who would be displaced, some of their opponents make the mistake of challanging the very rationale of big dams.

The publication of the report of the World Commission on Dams [WCD] is welcome insofar as it seeks to achieve a reasonable balance between these extreme positions. The report, released by former South African President Nelson Mandela on November 16 in London, is the culmination of more than two years of endeavour by the WCD's 12 independent members, who were chosen through a global search process to reflect regional diversity, expertise and stakeholder perspectives. Each member served in an individual capacity, and none represented an institution or a country.

The presence of Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan [NBA], on the WCD has inevitably raised questions about the objectivity of the report. However, Medha Patkar was only one of three vocal critics of the dam on the panel, others being Joji Corino of Tebtebba Foundation, the Philippines, and Deborah Moore of the Environmental Defence, United States. The WCD was chaired by Prof. Kader Asmal, Minister for Education, South Africa, who believes that nations build large dams for sound reasons. Prominent pro-dam representatives on the WCD included Goral Lindhal, president of Asea Brown Boveri [ABB] Limited, a private sector infrastructure developer and a power generation equipment manufacturer with its headquarter in Sweden, Jan Veltrop, former president of the International Commission on Large Dams [ICOLD], a pro-dam lobby.

The WCD's origins go back to April 1997, when the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources [IUCN], a global union of more than 800 government agencies, sponsored a meeting between the champions and critics of large dams in Gland, Switzerland. The IUCN is headed by the Prince of Wales and is considered by many environmental activists as being fairly conservative and tame.

The Gland workshop focussed on bringing a range of opinions around the table to discuss the implications of the World bank and its Operations Evaluation Department [OED] review of 50 Bank-funded dams. It brought together 39 participants representing governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, civil society organisations, and the affected people. The participants formed an Interim Working Group and entrusted this group with the task of establishing the WCD.

The WCD was thus announced in February 1998 under the chairmanship of Kader Asmal, and it began work in the following May. Its objectives were two-fold: review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development, and develop internationally accepted criteria, guidelines and standars where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning dams.

The WCD was scheduled to hold public hearings on a number of South Asian dam projects on September 21 and 22, 1998, but was refused permission to do so in India. The Government of India initially welcomed the WCD's proposed visit on August 19, 1998, but changed its mind under pressure from thr pro-dam lobby, which attributed to the WCD sinister motives. The Bharatiya Janta Party's Members of Parliament from gujarat, including Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, met Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and pressed him to cancel the WCD's visit because it was "totally misconceived, improper and immoral".

The excuse they offered was that the Supreme Court was due to hear soon a matter pertaining to the SSP. The Government told Kader Asmal that the WCD's visit to India was not "opportune". The government took such a stand even though the WCD's mandate was not even quasi-judicial and it was unlikely to interfere with India's sovereign legal process (Frontline, October 9, 1998). The hearing then took place in Colombo.

With the Supreme Court's majority judgment, delivered on October 18, going against anti-dam activists, it perhaps makes sense to ask whether the majority of Judges would have changed their opinion had they had opportunity to read the WCD's findings. Although the question is hypothetical, critics of the dam would like the Supreme Court to review its judgment in the light of the report.

It is not as if the WCD eport is entirely against dams. It acknowledges that the services rendered by dams are considerable- in the order of 12 to 16 per cent of world food production and 19 per cent of world electricity suply, among others. In addition, the WCD Knowledge Base confirms the longevity of large dams, as many of them continue to generat benefit even after 30 or 40 years of starting operation. The WCD examined the performance of about 1000 of the more than 45000 large dams around the world with varying degrees of intensity and conclude that better and continued monitoring of the technical, financial and economic performance of the dams is needed.

The commission undertook two case studies in Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] countries and six in developing countries. It prepared country review syudies for India and China and an issue paper for the Russian Federation and the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent states [CIS]. The Commission developed the Cross-Check Suevey to extend the analysis provided in the case studies to target a broader set of dams. Completed survey forms were received from 52 countries with respect to 125 dams. The analysis aimed to detect broader patterns and trends in performance and decision-making relating to dams.

The report of the WCD helps one understand the social and environmental impact of large dams. Thus the WCD has found through its Cross-Check Survey that 67 per cent of the ecosystem impact recorded was negative. The WCD found thatit was not possible to mitigate much of the impact of reservoir creation on terrestrial ecosystem and biodiversity, and efforts to rescue wildlife had met with little sustainable sucess. The Commission has noted that a number of countries, particulary U.S., are making efforts to restore ecosystem function and native fish populations by decommissioning large and small dams.

The report points out that simple accounting of the direct benefits provided by large dams - the provision of irigation water, electricity, municipal and industrial water supply, and flood control - often fails to capture the full set of social benefits associated with the services. It also misses a set of ancillary benefits and indirect economic (or multiplier) benefits of dam projects, the report says.

The Commission highlights the fact that past decision-making and planning efforts often have neither adequately assessed nor accounted for the adverse social impact of large dams. As a result, the construction and operation of large dams has had serious and lasting effects on the lives, livelihoods and health of affected communities. Thus it has found that between 40 to 80 million people have been physically displaced by dams worldwide; millions of people living downstream from dams - particularly those reliant on natural flood-plain function and fisheries - have also suffered serious harm to their livelihoods and had the productivity of their resources at risk; many of the displaced people have not been recognised (or enumerated) as such, and therefor are not resettled or compensated.

The WCD Knowledge Base indicates 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. The Commission underlines the fact that the balancing of gains and losses as a way of judging the merits of a large dam project - or selecting the best options - is not acceptable whaere the mismatch between people who gain from the benefits and those who pay the costs is of such a serious, pervasive and sometimes irreversible nature.

The WCD Global Review finds that the influence of vested interests, legal and regulatory gaps, disincentives for compliance and lack of monitoring, participation and transparency, among other things, have combined to create significant barriers to reforms, that could otherwise make the planning and decision-making process more open, responsive and accountable. The Commission has found that these barriers are surmountable and the difficulties not inevitable.

The report demonstrates that an approach based on the recognition of rights and the assessment of risks can lead to greatly improved and significantly more legitimate decision-making on water and energy development. In contrast to the WCD's optimism on the feasibility of improving the poor performance of dams and mitigating their impact, Medha Patkar's 'comment' added to the report marks a partial dissent; it seeks to debunk any scope for such optimism.

Medha Patkar writes that the frequent failure of large dams to provide their claimed benefits and this poor performance ned to be recognised and accepted. She warns: "Even with rights recognised, risk assessed and stakeholders identified, existing iniquitous power relations would too easilly allow developers to dominate and distort an inclusive, transparent process of decision-making. These developers include multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the State."

Even though Medha Patkar signed the report to endorse its findings and recommendations, she rejected its underlying assumptions of a development model which, according to her, has palpably failed to caution against the massive gulf betwen a statement of good intent and a change in practice by entrenched vested interests. Medha Patkar's critique, while expressing the sentiments of of vast sections of dispossed and deprived people whose interests she has been championing in India, should perhaps lead the proponents of large dams to infer that the WCD report is after all objective.

© Frontline; February 2, 2001