Engineers, campaigners condemn Bank for Dams Commission follow-up

25 March 2002

The World Bank was applauded by a wide range of organisations for its role in helping establish the World Commission on Dams (WCD). This was a precedent-setting body containing fierce critics of dams and representatives of companies which build them. Now all sides are condemning the Bank’s failure to implement the Commission’s recommendations for new approaches to water and energy planning.

Both the Engineering News Record, a trade journal, and World Rivers Review, an NGO campaign magazine, have recently criticised the Bank. In an editorial on 21 January, ENR condemned the Bank’s “deplorable hypocrisy” for approving the Bujagali dam in Uganda just months after the WCD report came out. ENR points out that the WCD was a bold attempt to “find a way through the conflict that has halted dam construction in many developed countries”. If the study’s own sponsors refuse to be guided by them, “all we can anticipate is continued sclerosis in dambuilding.” The commission’s report was greeted by cautious optimism by companies, governments and other organizations. Yet in the first test of its guidelines, the World Bank has decided to back the Bujagali Dam even though it has acknowledged that the project is “unacceptable from environmental and social perspectives.” The engineering magazine compares the Bank’s actions to those of a teenager arguing that it is acceptable because everybody does it, or as the Bank puts it “to the best of its knowledge [the] process proposed by the WCD has never been implemented in a major dam project”.

An article by Patrick McCully in World Rivers Review (December 2001) makes similar points. McCully reviews the actions of various donors and companies to take the WCD‘s guidelines seriously. He says that despite the Bank President’s endorsement of the report at its launch, there has been “a tug-of-war between some Bank staff members who oppose incorporating WCD guidelines into Bank policy, and other staff members, executive directors and members of civil society who believe the Bank has an obligation to implement the guidelines”.

The World Bank’s senior water advisor, John Briscoe, initially stated that the WCD guidelines would only be a non-mandatory “reference point”.

The Bank’s resettlement policy was recently revised without taking into account the WCD‘s extensive work on this issue. The new policy disadvantages indigenous peoples, women and ethnic minorities who lack formal legal rights to land and had explicit protection under the Bank’s previous policy.

However, World Bank executive directors rejected a preliminary Bank management action plan for implementing the WCD, saying that it was too vague and lacked detail. Bank Board members also harshly criticised the water strategy currently being produced by the World Bank. They argued that an initial draft of the strategy failed to take adequate account of the WCD‘s findings and will not help the poor.

A leaked memo from Bank executive directors complained that the plans developed by World Bank management “appear aimed at boosting lending volumes rather than finding the best way to help meet crucial development needs”. The directors also commented, in line with many NGOs, that “much more could be done to better manage existing water infrastructure and demand-side issues”.

One executive director’s office also criticised the draft for lacking a roadmap for action and indicators for monitoring; omitting gender issues; exaggerating the success of water users’ associations; having inadequate coverage of the link between water and health; and exaggerating the benefits of privatisation.

Patrick McCully, Campaigns Director of the International Rivers Network, commented that “the Bank has learned little if anything from its history of supporting destructive, white elephant water megaprojects. The draft strategy seriously misrepresents the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams”. It makes no mention of the WCD‘s criticism of the Bank for failing to ensure compliance with its own policies and legal agreements; weak or non-existent post-construction project evaluation and monitoring; and failure to consider a range of possible options.

A new draft of the strategy is due to be released on the Bank’s website for comments in late March. John Briscoe has said that a consultation with NGOs on the strategy will take place in Washington in May.


World Commission report has far-reaching implications Bretton Woods Update 20

Water Resources Strategy

Galina Arkuzinski, World Bank

Latest draft of Water Resources Sector Strategy

Still fixated with privatisation: A Critical Review of the World Bank’s Water Resources Sector Strategy, Public Services International Research Unit, December 2001