World Commission report has far-reaching implications

12 December 2000

On 16 November the World Commission on Dams (WCD) launched its final report. This unprecedented exercise brought together representatives of different perspectives on the dams issue and conducted a major series of studies. Its conclusions have far-reaching implications for the World Bank and similar agencies, not just for their approaches to dams but for all project planning.

The WCD was established in 1998, following NGO and dam-affected peoples’ calls for an independent review of the impacts of large dams. Originally the World Bank had tried to satisfy this demand with a desk review by its Evaluation Department. When this was dismissed as partial and inadequate, the Bank worked with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and others to pull together a new process. The WCD‘s mandate was to evaluate the development impacts of large dams, and to recommend new guidelines for future planning.

In 1998 – following intense negotiations – the twelve-person Commission started work. It was composed of members from NGOs, governments and public utilities, industry and academia. The Commission was established in Cape Town, with a South African government minister, Kader Asmal, as chair. The WCD conducted a number of thematic reviews and case studies, held hearings in all regions of the world and received nearly one thousand evidence submissions.

Among the conclusions of its final report are that large dams have in general produced considerable benefits but:

  • failed to provide as much electricity, water, or flood control as their sponsors predicted;
  • suffered massive cost-overruns and time delays;
  • proven uneconomic, even before accounting for their social and environmental costs;
  • had huge social and environmental impacts which have not been mitigated;
  • provided benefits to the already well-off while poorer sectors of society have borne the costs.

These findings led to a number of important recommendations which apply to dams but which could also be applied to other infrastructure development.

The WCD report recommends:

  • giving priority to optimizing the performance of existing infrastructure before starting new projects;
  • periodic participatory reviews for existing dams to assess issues such as dam safety;
  • mechanisms to provide social reparations for those who are suffering the impacts of dams, and to restore damaged ecosystems.

The WCD report provides the best and most detailed analysis of “participation” yet elaborated by a body of such standing. It says participation should mean “free, prior informed consent” or “demonstrable public acceptance” of affected people, expressed in binding formal agreements.

These agreements should be “negotiated in an open and transparent process” which begins by recognizing rights and assessing risks. Options assessment should be conducted at all stages of planning, project development and operations. This should include:

  • Formulating development needs and objectives through an open and participatory process before identifying and assessing options for water and energy resource development;
  • Using planning approaches which take into account the full range of development objectives to assess all policy, institutional, management and technical options;
  • Giving social and environmental aspects the same significance as technical, economic and financial factors;
  • Giving priority to increasing the effectiveness and sustainability of existing water, irrigation and energy systems;

“Options assessment has been typically limited in scope and confined primarily to technical parameters”

WCD final report

“The debate about dams is a debate about the very meaning, purpose and pathways for achieving development.”

WCD final report

Patrick McCully of International Rivers Network (IRN) stated: “the World Commission on Dams report vindicates much of what dam critics have long argued. If the builders and funders of dams follow its recommendations, the era of destructive dams should come to an end”.

The Commission report recommends that multilateral development banks

  • help countries implement its recommendations;
  • review their portfolios of past projects to identify those that may have under-performed or present unresolved issues, and share in addressing the financial burden of such projects;
  • review internal processes and operational policies in relation to selection of projects, the appraisal process; and implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.

Over one hundred NGOs from 39 countries reinforced these messages by signing a call for public financial institutions such as the World Bank to immediately and comprehensively adopt the WCD‘s recommendations. In particular the NGOs called for independent, transparent and participatory reviews of planned and ongoing dam projects, and a halt to project preparation and construction while this is done. It also called on all institutions which share responsibility for the unresolved negative impacts of dams to initiate a process to establish and fund mechanisms to provide reparations to communities which have suffered losses from dams.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn has announced that the Bank will discuss how to react to the report’s findings and will report back in February 2001. Early indications are that serious discussions are taking place in the Bank on issues from water sector operations to policies on resettlement and indigenous peoples (see story, this page). The Bretton Woods Project is working with others to push for clear and comprehensive follow-up.

Download WCD or is published by Earthscan

A Citizen’s Guide to the WCD report is being produced by International Rivers Network

Call to Financial Institutions