Happy Birthday, World Commission on Dams!

Peter Bosshard

Ngoh Seh Suan/Wikimedia Commons 
Ten years ago on this day, Nelson Mandela launched the report of the independent World Commission on Dams (WCD) at a glitzy ceremony in London. The Commission – composed of prominent members of governments, the dam industry, civil society and academia – had carried out the first in-depth assessment of the development impacts of dams. It found that while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development,” in “too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits”. For example, dams have displaced 40 to 80 million people worldwide, and most of these people have been impoverished in the process.

The Commission proposed a new framework for decision-making, which avoided simply pitting economic against social and environmental interests. It presented innovative recommendations on how best to assess available needs and options in the energy and water sectors, integrate the various interests from the beginning of the planning process, and respect the rights of all parties whose interests are at stake. Most importantly, the Commission proposed that affected people should become active parties at the negotiating table, not just passive victims or beneficiaries of dam projects.

“Where rights compete or conflict, negotiations conducted in good faith offer the only process through which various interests can be legitimately reconciled”, the WCD report suggests. The Commissioners, who represent very different interests in the big dams debate, showed through their own example how negotiations and dialogue conducted in good faith can produce innovative solutions.

WCD Chair Kader Asmal and Nelson Mandela on November 16, 2000
WCD Chair Kader Asmal and Nelson Mandela on November 16, 2000
Birgit Zimmerle
The WCD framework was embraced by international organizations and environmental groups and by some government agencies, banks and companies. In countries such as South Africa, Nepal, Germany and Sweden, governments and civil society groups adapted the recommendations to their national contexts through dialogue processes. The European Union decided that hydropower projects that sell carbon credits on the European market would have to respect the WCD framework. On the other hand the dam industry, the World Bank and many dam-building governments claimed that the new approach was too time-consuming and complicated.

During the last 10 years, the rights-based approach to development has found support beyond the dams sector. In September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with 144 votes to four. The Declaration recognized that indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior informed consent regarding any projects “affecting their lands or territories”, and in particular projects which require their relocation. In countries such as India, Brazil, Burma and China, a disproportionate share of dam projects affects indigenous peoples. Their right to free, prior informed consent has also been recognized by the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and other international bodies. Even the dam industry’s new Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol recognizes consent as “proven best practice”.

Just as importantly, the WCD framework has proven its value in practice. A survey conducted by the UN Environment Programme found that many governments have used WCD recommendations when revising their water and energy laws, and in specific projects. The South African government, whose water minister had chaired the Commission, used the WCD recommendations to prepare an innovative program to share the benefits of the Maguga Dam with the communities affected by it. The communities participated in preparing the program, and have escaped the fate of impoverishment that has beset so many dam-affected people.

In my native Switzerland, people have for a long time had the right to vote on hydropower projects at local or state level. As a consequence, dam builders make sure that they minimize resettlement and share benefits with affected communities. Since the 1960s, no people have been displaced by dams in Switzerland, even though scores of projects have been built. In some cases, communities have also stopped projects for environmental reasons. In January 2009, the mountain village of Bergün for example voted to stop an $82 million hydropower project which would have impacted an important watershed. Other environmentally damaging projects meanwhile went ahead. Experience shows that a rights-based approach will not resolve all conflicts, but will overall lead to better development outcomes.

I was present when the World Commission on Dams was conceived, and when Nelson Mandela delivered the final report in London. I had the privilege to get to know the Commissioners as people of the highest integrity, who came up with an innovative approach through good faith negotiations. The time for a rights-based approach to development has come, and the WCD report offers great guidelines on how to turn it into practice. Happy Birthday, World Commission on Dams!

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard