Dam review 5 years on: lessons not learned

12 September 2005 | Resource

Five years on from the widely acclaimed World Commission on Dams (WCD) report, Dams and development: A new framework for decision-making, and after a decade during which big dam building has been in steady decline, the World Bank and the dam industry are now pushing for a revitalisation of large hydropower projects and the side-lining of the report. This has been accompanied by a number of contentious Bank-supported dam projects such as Nam Theun 2 in Lao PDR (see Update 46); Allain Duhangan in India (see Update 43); and renewed interest in dams in Uganda and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the legacies of earlier dam projects are still being felt, such as the Chixoy dam in Guatemala; and the Lesotho Highlands project (see Update 41).

The Bank is currently considering a request by Pakistan for $10 billion in assistance for hydropower projects. Pakistani civil society is concerned about the planned Kala Bagh dam on the Indus Delta which has already suffered significant livelihood and biodiversity loss as a result of previous dam construction. According to NGO Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI), two controversial studies are being carried out under the supervision of the World Bank. A workshop organised by PDI and ActionAid Pakistan in Karachi identified serious flaws in the draft reports of both studies, in particular with regards to the intrusion of sea water, and environmental degradation that would result.

In April the Ugandan government announced its approval for Aga Khan Industrial Promotion Services to build the Bujagali Dam. The dam has been a source of embarrassment for the Bank since it removed its support for the project in 2003 following a corruption investigation and the withdrawal of the main sponsor, US-based AES Corporation. The IFC was to be the major lender for the project and it is not clear if it will give its support to the new sponsor. Local groups working on Bujagali have raised questions about resettlement, environmental impacts and cultural resources, pointing out that this project will do nothing to help the 95 per cent of Uganda’s population who are not connected to the national grid.

a number of high-profile and detrimental environmental and social consequences

A new report on Guatemala’s Chixoy dam documents the full extent of social injustices and human rights violations resulting from the World Bank/Inter-American Development Bank-funded project. The report recommends legally binding reparations for the 4,000 people affected by the 22-year old dam. In 1982 more than four hundred Maya Achí men, women and children were tortured, raped and killed by the Guatemalan army after they opposed relocation (see Update 43). The report was commissioned by the Peasant Association Río Negro 13 of March Maya Achí, International Rivers Network (IRN), Reform of the World Bank Italy, and Rights Action Guatemala.

Thayer Scudder, one of the 12 commissioners of the WCD and a consultant on resettlement projects to the World Bank since 1964, explores the failures of large dams in his new book The future of large dams: dealing with social, environmental, institutional and political costs. He argues that, despite the Bank’s role as a standard-setter for large hydro projects, its ability to deal seriously with resettlement is insufficient. He states that the WCD recommendations are superior to the Bank’s environmental and social safeguard policies, and criticises the Bank for failing to require an overarching policy for large hydropower projects.

A conference to mark the fifth anniversary of the release of the WCD report will take place in Berlin, in November, organised by IRN, Urgewald and the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It will be attended by experts, government representatives and activists and aims to showcase the broad public support for the WCD report, and highlight models for the implementation of the WCD guidelines.