DAWN REVIEW, Pakistan, 11 January 2001 Thursday 15 Shawwal 1421 Large dams: bane or boon? By Phil Williams Perhaps the most controversial of all development debates have centered on the merits and demerits of building large dams and reservoirs, provoking strong emotions and generating heated arguments In 1997, when the World Commission on Dams was initiated, anti-dam activists were divided over the wisdom of cooperating with the World Bank. From the 60s on, the bank was the main force that financed and legitimized the big dam building boom that has transformed the world's rivers. Activists participating in the "consultation" processes of the bank felt they were ignored or misrepresented. Others had seen progressive policies adopted on paper, then routinely ignored by bank staff. The World Commission must be used, they agreed, as a "truth commission", to produce a report that would indict the record and rationale of dams. Dam promoters, guilty of 40 years of ecological and social destruction, were to be held accountable. Reparations for the millions of dispossessed people and restoration of river ecosystems were to be advocated. Most importantly, the report must not become yet another endorsement of the "benefits" of dams, leaving unchallenged the keystone of the dam builders' ideology - that dams are needed for "economic development" that benefits the poor. A gathering of the world's great and good marked the release of the commission's final report on Nov. 16, 2000. Leading anti-dam activists joined Nelson Mandela, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and representatives of the dam building industry. As they had expected, the report documented the huge social costs of large dams, with up to 80 million people dispossessed and countless millions more impoverished. It acknowledged the shoddy economics and violations of human rights that attended dam construction. It advocated more rigorous standards for planning future projects, including the need for prior informed consent of affected peoples. So shouldn't activists feel vindicated? The answer is no. The commission, evading its main task of adjudicating the "development effectiveness" of dams, emphasizes that it is poor planning of past dams that has caused unnecessary harm. This contradicts critics' charges that it is the dams themselves, no matter how well planned, that inevitably create unmitigated social and ecological impacts. Critics also charge that dams are the very antithesis of development for the poor because they enable the expropriation of the resources of a river valley, placing the livelihood of people who depend on rivers at the disposal of those who have the power to exploit them. Did the commission prove these critics wrong? Not at all. The World Commission on Dams was no "truth commission", but more of a "peace process." The text of the final report is the product of a settlement negotiated among human rights activists, water policy experts and dam builders; not a scientific inquiry. Those activists who have facilitated the commission's process are pleased with the outcome. They believe much of the evidence will support their future campaigns, and they argue the commission's recommendations for transparent planning process and "prior informed consent," if enacted, would virtually preclude future dam projects. Others will be less satisfied. They see failure to challenge the rationale for dam building to be a major setback, and the failure of the commission clearly to advocate reparations for affected people to be a disappointment. Environmentalists too will disagree with the commission's view of the impact of dams on river ecosystems - that, with better planning, new dams can be built that will mitigate their adverse impacts or even enhance the river environment. The pressure for consensus blinded the commission to what could have been its most important and original contribution: to address the global cumulative impacts of dams. Except for global warming, there is no more drastic human alteration of the physical and ecological landscape in the last 40 years than the damming, regulation and diversion of the world's rivers. To say that dams affect 60 per cent of the world's rivers greatly understates their affect on the transformation of river valleys, estuaries, coastlines and coastal seas in temperate and tropical zones. The decline and destruction of species dependent on floodplains, wetlands, and natural river flows is not just an environmental tragedy but affects the food supply and livelihood of millions. Cities, river valleys and whole countries are now economically linked, held hostage for their water supply and flood protection to the operation of big dams upstream, dams that are silting up, ageing and growing more dangerous every year; dams we now acknowledge were poorly planned, in ignorance or disdain for their true long-term costs. The real question in the big dams debate is similar to that posed by nuclear power plants: not how to improve their planning, but how to get rid of them. Over the last three years, while activists have been lobbying the commission, dam building has continued. Plans for new projects like Ilusu in Turkey, Wloslawek on the Vistula, resurrected projects like Arun in Nepal, or Bakun in the rainforest of Sarawak have moved ahead. Construction of Itoitz in Spain, Boguchany in Siberia and the Three Gorges in China has continued. Most poignant of all, last month the Indian Supreme Court approved completion of the World Bank-initiated Sardar Sarovar dam. It was the argument of presumed development benefits, not the vigorous prior informed dissent of 500,000 citizens of the Narmada valley, that the court found most persuasive. Dr Philip Williams, a consulting engineer in San Francisco, is founder and former president of the International Rivers Network. He resigned because of disagreements over the organization's support of the WCD process. -Dawn/The Guardian News Service. ========== (http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4101250,00.html) THE GUARDIAN, London, Thursday December 7, 2000 Outlook Poor are sold down the river By Phil Williams In 1997, when the World Commission on Dams was set up, anti-dam activists were divided over the wisdom of cooperating with the World Bank. Since the 60s the bank had been the main force that financed and legitimised the dam building boom that has transformed the world's rivers. Activists who had participated in the bank's consultation processes felt that they had been ignored or misrepresented. Others had seen progressive policies adopted on paper, then ignored. The commission, they agreed, must produce a report that would examine the record and rationale of dams. Dam promoters, guilty of 40 years of ecological and social destruction, were to be held accountable. Reparations for dispossessed people and restoration of river ecosystems would be advocated. Most importantly, the report must not become another endorsement of the "benefits" of dams, leaving unchallenged the keystone of the dam builders' ideology: that dams are needed for economic development that benefits the poor. Last month in London leading anti-dam activists joined Nelson Mandela, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, and representatives of the dam-building industry for the release of the commission's final report. It documented the huge social costs of large dams, with up to 80m people dispossessed and millions more impoverished. It acknowledged the shoddy economics and human rights violations that attended dam construction. It advocated more rigorous standards for planning future projects. So shouldn't activists feel vindicated? No. The commission, evading its main task of adjudicating on the "development effectiveness" of dams, emphasised that poor planning has caused unnecessary harm. This contradicts critics' charges that it is the dams themselves, no matter how well planned, that inevitably have deleterious social and ecological impacts. Critics also say that dams are the very antithesis of development for the poor because they enable the expropriation of the resources of a river valley, placing the livelihood of people who depend on rivers at the disposal of those who have the power to exploit them. This was no truth commission, more of a peace process. The report is the product of a settlement negotiated between human rights activists, water policy experts and dam builders; not a scientific inquiry. Those activists who facilitated the commission's process are pleased with the outcome. They believe that much of the evidence will support their future campaigns, and they argue that the commission's recommendations for transparent planning processes and "prior informed consent" of the people affected, if enacted, would virtually preclude future dams. Others see the failure to challenge the rationale for dam building as a setback, and the failure clearly to advocate reparations as a disappointment. Environmentalists too will disagree with the commission's view of the impact of dams on river ecosystems - that with better planning dams can mitigate their impact or even enhance the river environment. Pressure for consensus blinded the commission to what could have been its most important contribution: to address the global cumulative impact of dams. Except for global warming there is no more drastic human alteration of the physical and ecological landscape in the past 40 years. To say that dams affect 60% of the world's rivers greatly understates their effect on the transformation of river valleys, estuaries, coastlines and coastal seas in temperate and tropical zones. The destruction of species dependent on floodplains, wetlands and natural river flows is not just an environmental tragedy, it affects the food supply and livelihood of millions. Cities, river valleys and whole countries are now held hostage for their water supply and flood protection to the operation of big dams upstream - dams that are silting up, ageing and growing more dangerous every year. The real problem in the big dams debate is similar to that posed by nuclear power plants: not how to improve their planning, but how to get rid of them. Over the past three years plans for new projects such as Ilisu in Turkey, Wloslawek on the Vistula, resurrected projects such as Arun in Nepal, or Bakun in the rainforest of Sarawak have moved ahead. Construction of Itoitz in Spain, Boguchany in Siberia and the Three Gorges in China has continued. Most poignant of all, in October the Indian Supreme Court approved completion of the World Bank-initiated Sardar Sarovar dam. It was the argument of presumed development benefits, not the vigorous "prior informed dissent" of 500,000 people of the Narmada valley that the court found most persuasive.