Civil Society Letter to the World Bank on Large Hydropower

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ms. Kathy Sierra
Vice President, Sustainable Development Network
The World Bank
1818 H Street NW
Washington, DC 20433

Dear Ms. Sierra,

As the World Bank Group develops its Energy Strategy, we are concerned that the Bank's pledge to increase support for large hydropower projects will result in increased poverty and irreversible social and environmental damages. A decade after the release of the World Bank-supported World Commission on Dams (WCD) report, the evidence continues to mount that large dams bring significant and unmitigated costs to society and to riverine ecosystems:

  • The UN's Third Global Biodiversity Outlook (May 2010) asserts that freshwater species are being lost at an alarming rate and that freshwater ecosystems are even more threatened than other ecosystems.
  • A recent paper by Richter, Postel, Scudder et al. in the journal Water Alternatives ( reveals that 472 million river-dependent people have been negatively affected downstream of large dams. This situation, the authors state, "lends urgency to the need for more comprehensive assessments of dam costs and benefits."
  • The Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) in a recent study, Large Dams in the Americas, Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? (, found that project promoters frequently do not comply with applicable international laws and standards, resulting in "severe impacts to the environment and also to the human rights of affected persons and communities."

Climate change will also exacerbate the problems caused by large dams. Changing precipitation patterns and increased flooding and droughts will threaten dam safety, cause greater social and environmental damages, and challenge the viability of large-dam hydropower generation. Furthermore, the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from hydro reservoirs is emerging as a potentially significant issue in some regions.

Big hydropower projects in Africa, for example, will only leave hydro-dependent countries more vulnerable to power outages and economic disruptions due to extreme weather, thereby harming efforts to help riverine communities adapt. Additionally, dam projects can exacerbate conflict over water resources, as is happening with the Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia, which is now under consideration by the Bank.

While the World Bank formally endorsed the strategic priorities of the WCD report, it has done little to implement the WCD's recommendations with specific policy changes. We urge you to address this failure and help craft an Energy Strategy that lives up to the Bank's best intentions to help protect the human rights and environment of affected peoples.

Therefore, in its forthcoming Energy Strategy, we urge the World Bank Group to:

  • Prioritize investments that directly increase energy access for the poor.

Large, centralized, grid-based hydropower projects do not provide the direct poverty reduction, energy access and environmental and social benefits of new renewables, such as solar, wind and geothermal. The Bank should prioritize support for these technologies and finance the development costs of new renewables as needed to address affordability issues for the poor. The use of local materials, labor and community management associated with decentralized systems can provide additional development benefits. The Bank should demonstrate how each energy sector intervention it supports is promoting equitable access, reducing poverty and supporting sustainable, climate-friendly development paths.

  • Focus on the cutting-edge technologies that reduce social and environmental costs.

Large dams are part of a costly energy system based on an engineering vision of the early 20th century. The Bank should work with countries to leapfrog these outdated technologies and build up new renewables capacity and expertise. If governments and project promoters incorporated the environmental and social costs (including GHG emissions) of large dams into appraisals, they would rarely consider these projects "least-cost" in economic terms. As the Bank prioritizes delivering electricity access to the rural poor, it should increase its investment in decentralized mini-, micro- and pico-hydro projects. These projects can be grid-connected or off-grid options. Non-dam hydro technologies should also be explored, including wave power and "hydrokinetic" turbines that capture energy from the flow of water in rivers, estuaries and ocean currents.

  • Work with countries to choose the best energy options through a comprehensive and participatory needs and options assessment that also considers efficiency measures.

Often governments and promoters will present a large, capital-intensive power project as the only option a country has to avoid an imminent energy crisis. That assertion, however, is rarely based on careful technical and economic considerations. Unfortunately, after ignoring alternatives for many years and sinking political and financial capital into a big project, it may indeed seem to be the only option.

But we should never get to that point. At the root of sound energy development are transparent, participatory and accountable energy planning practices. The Bank should work with countries to conduct Integrated Resources Planning (comprehensive options assessments) that consider the full range of feasible supply-side and demand-side options. These assessments must be transparent, participatory and truly reflect the most accurate analysis of costs and benefits, including social and environmental costs, climate risks and GHG emissions. Assessments must rank options on their ability to provide reliable energy services at lowest overall economic cost to society, not just the lowest commercial cost to investors. The outcome of these processes should form the basis of the Bank's support to the energy sector and the Bank should only finance new generation projects that emerge from these processes.

The Bank should work with countries to maximize their existing generation potential and support the rehabilitation of hydropower plants before moving forward with any new dam projects. The Bank should also ensure that countries address the social and environmental legacy of existing dam projects, by working with the government and project sponsors to address compensation shortfalls, resettlement and livelihood restoration failures, and environmental compliance violations.

Finally, the Bank should dramatically increase its support of energy efficiency efforts, which have the potential to be brought online more quickly and cheaply than conventional power plants. (For example, South Africa is now analyzing demand-side techniques that will save as much power as will be produced by the 4,800-MW Medupi power station for considerably less than the coal-fired project's R125-billion price tag, according to Engineering News Record.)

  • Only support large hydropower projects if they have been selected through a comprehensive options assessment process and comply with the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams.

Given the extraordinary risks of big dams, the World Bank should only support large hydropower projects that are demonstrated to comply with the WCD recommendations -- still the most legitimate global benchmark for dam building. These recommendations emerged from a groundbreaking, multi-stakeholder process that evaluated the development effectiveness of large dams and issued standards for new water and energy projects.

In the decade since the WCD report was published, a number of its most important principles have been endorsed and codified in various policies and legal instruments. These principles include: conducting comprehensive options assessments; respecting the rights of affected communities by negotiating legally binding agreements and ensuring the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples; guaranteeing that affected communities are the first to benefit; fixing problems with existing projects before building new ones; providing for environmental flows to maintain downstream ecosystems and livelihoods; and requiring funded, enforceable compliance plans from developers.

As a development institution with a poverty-reduction mandate, the World Bank Group must only support large dams after first adopting the highest standards to guarantee the rights of affected communities and protect the environment.

We have appreciated your accessibility and openness over the years. As your retirement approaches, we encourage you to make the Bank's new Energy Strategy part of your bold personal legacy. Thank you for your consideration of these critical issues.


Shannon Lawrence
International Rivers

Endorsed by:

1. Juan Martín Carballo, Centro de Derechos Humanos y Ambiente (CEDHA), Argentina

2. Margie Law, Mekong Monitor, Tasmania Australia

3. Muhammad Hilaluddin, Angikar Bangladesh Foundation, Bangladesh.

4. Ahmed Swapan, VOICE, Bangladesh

5. Zakir Hossain, Jagrata Juba Shangha, Bangladesh

6. Pol Vandevoort, 11.11.11, Belgium

7. Roland Widmer, Amigos da Terra Amazonia Brasileira, Brazil

8. Sai Sai, Burma Rivers Network, Burma

9. Chhith Sam, The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Cambodia

10. Emily Woodfield, Fauna and Flora International, Cambodia

11. Sun Yura, My Village, Cambodia

12. Meach Mean, 3S Rivers Protection Network, Cambodia

13. Nov Piseth, Mekong School Student Alumni 2008, Cambodia

14. Ian Baird, Global Association for People and the Environment, Victoria, B.C., Canada

15. Luis Infanti De la Mora, Vicariato Apostolico de Aysén (Comisión Agua Vida), Chile

16. Juan Pablo Orrego S., ECOSISTEMAS, Chile

17. Sara Larrain, Programa Chile Sustentable, Chile

18. Tamara Ullrich Railton, Agrupación Cultural, Turística y Ambiental de Pto Rio Tranquilo XI Región Aysén, Chile

19. Peter Hartmann, Coalicion Ciudadana por Aisén Reserva de Vida, Chile

20. Bernardo Zentilli, Comite Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y la Flora (CODEFF), Chile

21. Alejandro Del Pino Larzet, Corporación Costa Carrera, Chile

22. Flavia Liberonam, Fundación Terram, Chile

23. Patricio Rodrigo, Corporación Chile Ambiente, Chile

24. Patricio Segura Ortiz, Corporación Privada para el Desarrollo de Aysén, Chile

25. Marco Diaz, Defensores del Espíritu de La Patagonia, Chile

26. Augusto Hernández, Agrupación Social, Cultural y Ambiental Chonkes, Chile

27. Ninoska Vera, Agrupación Comunitaria Defensores de la Cuenca del Murta, Chile

28. Marcia Alvares, Agrupación Herederos de La Patagonia, Chile

29. Víctor Formantel, Representante Organizaciones Comunitarias de la Zona Sur de Aysén, Chile

30. Hipólito Medina, Club Deportivo y Social de Senderismo "Monte Ballo", Chile

31. Hernán Ríos Saldivia, Concejal, Municipio de Coyhaique, Chile

32. Patricio Varela Valdés, Agrupación Comunitaria Mañíos y Baguales, Chile

33. Pedro Caniullan, Organización Social, Ambiental y Cultural Entre Ríos y Cordillera, Chile

34. Enry Honorino Angulo, Cooperativa de Armadores y Pescadores Artesanales de Puerto Aguirre, Chile

35. Cristian Solis Solis, Organización Senderos de la Patagonia, Chile

36. Mayra Tenjo and Margarita Florez, Instituto Latinoamericano para una Sociedad y Derecho Alternativos (ILSA), Colombia

37. Miller Dussán Calderón, Plataforma Sur de Organizaciones Sociales, Colombia

38. Elsa Ardila Muñoz, Asociación de Afectados por la Construcción de la Represa El Quimbo (ASOQUIMBO), Colombia

39. Anne-Sophie Simpere, Les Amis de la Terre/Friends of the Earth France, France

40. Yu Xiaogang, Green Watershed, China

41. Heike Drillisch, GegenStroemung - CounterCurrent, Germany

42. Knud Vöcking, Urgewald e.V., Germany

43. Birgit Zimmerle, Berlin, Germany

44. Faustina A. Boakye, Gender and Energy Network of Ghana (GEDA), Ghana

45. Richard Twum Barimah Koranteng, Volta Basin Development Foundation, Ghana

46. Miriam Miranda, Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH), Honduras

47. Shripad Dharmadhikary, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, India

48. Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, India

49. Ravindranath, River Basin Friends, (NE) India

50. Jiten Yumnam, Citizens Concern for Dams and Development, India

51. Bhanu Kalluri, Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children, India

52. Dr. Arun Kumar Singh, Delhi India

53. Bernadinus Steni, Perkumpulan HuMa, Indonesia

54. Norman Jiwan, Sawit Watch, Indonesia

55. Rivani Noor, CAPPA, Indonesia

56. Giorgio Budi Indrarto, Indonesian Civil Society Forum on Climate Justice, Indonesia

57. Diana Goletom, debtWATCH, Indonesia

58. Elena Gerebizza, Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale (CRBM), Italy

59. Yuki Tanabe, JACSES, Japan

60. Eri Watanabe, Friends of the Earth Japan, Japan

61. Gustavo Castro Soto, OTROS MUNDOS A.C., Mexico

62. Valeria Enriquez, Fundar, Mexico

63. Anabela Lemos, JA! Justica Ambiental, Mozambique

64. Ratan Bhandari, Water and Energy Users' Federation-Nepal (WAFED), Nepal

65. Ratan Bhandari, Nepal Policy Institute, Nepal

66. Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan', Tribhuvan University, Nepal

67. Tobias Schmitz, Both ENDS, The Netherlands

68. Hope Ogbeide, SWAPHEP, Nigeria

69. David Ocular, Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), Nigeria

70. Andrew Preston, FIVAS, Norway

71. Elías Díaz Peña, SOBREVIVENCIA/Friends of the Earth Paraguay, Paraguay

72. Cesar Gamboa, Sustainable Energy Program (DAR), Peru

73. Antonio M. Claparols, Ecological Society of the Philippines, Philippines

74. Rodne Rodiño-Galicha, Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for Environment Inc. (Sibuyan ISLE), Philippines

75. Noemi N. Tirona, Consumer Rights for Safe Food, Philippines

76. Jesus Vicente Garganera, Alliance Against Mining, Philippines

77. Abubakar Sesay, Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone

78. Liane Greef, EcoDoc Africa, South Africa

79. Joan Carling, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, Thailand

80. Jim Enright , Mangroves Action Project, Thailand

81. Siriluk Sriprasit, EarthRights International Mekong School Program Alumni Association, Thailand

82. Sabrina Goyrvary, EarthRights International Mekong School and EarthRights International Mekong Alumni Network, Thailand

83. Sena ALOUKA , Jeunes Volontaires pour l'Environnement-International, Togo

84. Ercan Ayboga, Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, Turkey

85. Frank Muramuzi, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), Uganda

86. Olexi Pasyuk, National Ecological Center, Ukraine

87. Ama Marston, Bretton Woods Project, UK

88. Tom Griffiths, Forest Peoples Programme, UK

89. Nicholas Hildyard, The Corner House, UK

90. Julian Oram, Director, World Development Movement, UK

91. Chad Dobson, Bank Information Center, US

92. Karen Orenstein, Friends of the Earth US, US

93. Meryl Zendarski, Africa Action, US

94. Kristen Genovese, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), US

95. Paulina Garzon, Amazon Watch, US

96. Joanna Levitt, International Accountability Project, US

97. Kate Watters, Crude Accountability, US

98. Stephanie Fried, `Ulu Foundation - Hawai`I, US

99. Bruce Rich, Environmental Attorney, Washington, DC, US

100. Mary Gilbert, Quaker Earthcare Witness, US

101. Shiney Varghese, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, US

102. Nguy Thi Khanh, Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development, Vietnam

103. Vinh Nguyen, Department of Ecology, Institute of Tropiocal Biology, Vietnam

104. Trinh Le Nguyen, Pan Nature Vietnam, Vietnam

105. Ali M. Al-Ashwal, Sana'a University, Yemen

106. Marty Bergoffen, EarthRights International.

107. Astrid Puentes Riaño, Interamerican Association of Environmental Defense, AIDA

108. Peter Waldorff, Public Services International

Cc: Board of Directors of the World Bank Group

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