Assessing Options, Meeting Needs

Patrick McCully
Monday, December 1, 2003

A key “Strategic Priority” of the World Commission on Dams addressed the need to greatly improve the often secretive and corrupt processes which lead to decisions to build large dams. Critics of large dams have long called for water and energy planning to be made more participatory, accountable and comprehensive. A recent workshop showed that at least some of those involved in building and funding large dams agree that past and current planning practices are inadequate and that we must move toward the types of options assessment processes outlined in the WCD’s report.

The workshop was sponsored by the UN Environment Programme’s Dams and Development Project, the body set up to promote discussions on the practical implementation of the WCD’s recommendations. Participants included representatives from NGOs as well as the World Bank and other funding agencies, dam-building companies, utilities and research institutes.

Alessandro Palmieri, Lead Dams Specialist at the World Bank, gave a presentation at the workshop on the Bank’s new “sourcebook” on the topic, Stakeholder Involvement in Options Assessment: Promoting Dialogue in Meeting Water and Energy Needs. The sourcebook is part of the Bank’s action plan “developed to promote the mainstreaming of the WCD’s core values and strategic priorities within the Bank.” The sourcebook will be used for training bank staff and borrower country officials.

Much of the language in the Bank’s sourcebook echoes the points made by the WCD and the arguments of dam critics. For example, it states that:

“concepts of stakeholder involvement and options assessment imply a change in investment patterns for water and energy development. More resources and time will be spent at the upstream end of planning. Benefits such as early elimination of unacceptable projects, improved project portfolios, greater public acceptance, improved access to external financing, and lower overall costs outweigh the incremental time and cost spent prior to decision-making.”

In the foreword, Bank Vice President Ian Johnson says that “all reasonable options need to be investigated before a decision is made to proceed with a dam, and … those likely to be affected by such decisions should be encouraged to participate actively in the making of the decisions.”

The credibility of the sourcebook and the Bank’s commitment to participation and transparency is called into question by the inclusion of the Bujagali project in Uganda as a case study representing good participatory options assessment process. No mention is made of the fact that planning for Bujagali has been mired in corruption, secrecy, repeated attempts by government and World Bank officials to discredit project critics, and an options assessment process which fully reviewed only large hydro projects and largely ignored apparently cheaper and quicker to implement options such as geothermal power.

Other presentations described how options assessments can work to promote better alternatives. Ute Collier, who heads up the Dams Initiative for the conservation group WWF, gave a presentation at the workshop on a multidisciplinary options assessment process commissioned by WWF-Poland for an existing and planned dam on the Vistula River. The assessment concluded that the most economically beneficial scenario would be to decommission the existing Wlocawek Dam (which has caused serious downstream erosion problems) and not build the planned Nieszawa Dam. The domestic dam-building lobby strongly opposes decommissioning Wlocawek. According Collier, the government is likely to decide upon the option ranked second by the assessment team: to rehabilitate Wlocawek but abandon plans for Nieszawa. The study took 18 months and cost $80,000.

Workshop participants also heard from Bikash Pandey of consultancy Winrock International about the successes of implementing small-scale and decentralized energy options in Nepal. Biogas (for cooking and lighting), small hydro (for both electrical and mechanical power) and photovoltaic solar systems meet the energy needs of more rural Nepalis than the electric grid. The cost to the government of these decentralized options is only a tenth of the costs of grid expansion. Pandey pointed out that while electricity meets only 1% of Nepal’s energy needs, it receives 30% of development expenditures.

The workshop ended with participants agreeing to the following principles. Options assessments should be:
  • driven by an assessment of needs, in turn decided by local, sub-national, and national goals and influenced by international commitments;
  • transparent, with explicit assumptions and documented decisions;
  • include the full range of alternatives (including demand and supply; structural and non-structural; conventional and non-conventional);
  • participatory (including, at project level, directly affected groups; and at strategic and policy levels, representatives of interest groups);
  • based on the limitations of the knowledge and resources available, and
  • an iterative process with time-bound outcomes and aimed at meeting short and long term needs.

Participants expressed the hope that the workshop conclusions would help inform the various national processes established under the Dams and Development Project to discuss the implications of the WCD report.

The Proceedings of the workshop, and the World Bank’s options assessment sourcebook, will be available in December from the DDP (