A Brief History of Rivers and Dams, Through the Lens of World Rivers Review

Lori Pottinger
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Preparing for this final print issue of World Rivers Review has put us in a reflective mood. WRR has always been there to mark the key moments in the history of rivers and rights, to report on assaults on the world’s major rivers, and to decipher the complex issues that are brought to bear when a large dam is in the works.

So as we say goodbye to the print version (look to our website in coming months for details on the next-gen online version!), let’s take a moment to remember our shared history as seen through WRR. We hope this quick snapshot, as seen through a handful of cover stories from the magazine’s 30-year history, will remind you of how far we’ve come, as well as how far we still have to go in the effort to protect rivers and rights. (Remember, you can find a rich archive online of WRR going back to 1994.)

From the very first issue (then called the International Dams Newsletter), we’ve covered the key dam fights around the globe, and the inspiring activists who have headed them. Our 30 years’ of coverage of the world’s most contentious dams and the activist movement that they inspired is a uniquely comprehensive record of an issue that touches on both environmental destruction and human rights.


River defenders face a daunting list of issues when taking on complex large dam projects – from legal issues to economic analysis, the inadequacy of environmental impact studies and the intricacies of hydrological changes from dams. We helped raise capacity on these topics with strong analysis and special issues. We took pains to do justice to the topic of better solutions for managing rivers, as shown with these two special issues: one on restoring the flow in dammed rivers (through dam removal and environmental flows), and the other on “citizen science” efforts being used to protect great rivers like the Mekong (with tips on how to undertake your own citizen-science efforts).


Reporting on the rights of indigenous peoples to have a say about developments that affect them, and the human rights abuses of river defenders that too often resulted, has been a sad but important function of WRR. This 2001 story broke the news of the kidnapping of Colombian activist Kimi Pernia Domico (presumed murdered). In addition to the specific persecution of outspoken leaders, entire communities have found their rights curtailed or trampled by governments and dam builders eager to complete controversial projects.

After 15 years of covering the huge social, environmental and economic costs of big dams (and the dearth of benefits accruing to the poorest and most impacted by them), the news of the World Commission on Dams’ strong recommendations for improving dam planning was good news indeed. This special issue culminated two years’ of coverage of the independent panel’s work; later issues focused on official responses to it, including a cover story on a backlash to the from the dam industry, which resisted stronger standards that included “free, prior informed consent” for indigenous peoples and better analysis of alternatives to dams as part of the planning process, to name just two WCD recommendations.


China has been the world’s biggest dam builder for some time, and the news of its domestic dam projects and their impacts has peppered the magazine for most of its 30 years in print. But China’s move into global dam building took the impacts of its dam boom to rivers around the world, and WRR was there to help you decipher this troubling trend. The magazine also covered problems with specific Chinese-funded dams in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and efforts by civil society to engage Chinese dam builders over problems its dam projects bring.


Climate change is the grand challenge facing large dams (see "The Challenges of Climate Change"), and we’ve kept a steady gaze on how a warming climate affects rivers and dams as well as damming’s impacts on riverine communities to adapt to climate change. WRR’s climate reporting covered topics as diverse as the importance of the Amazon “carbon sink” effect, and how dams could harm this globally important natural process that actually reduces greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; to the mapping of climate-induced droughts and floods that make large dams uneconomic and unsafe, to the lack of proper analysis of these risks on proposed dam projects. We also pioneered reporting on the granting of sham carbon-credit funding for dirty dams in the global south, and on topic of reservoir emissions – something the dam industry would rather not have widely known, as it negates their argument that big-dam hydropower is “clean energy.”


How can we meet energy needs while maintaining healthy rivers? This challenging problem has been a consistent theme. A 2012 special issue took the broad view, with a cover story on communities taking their energy supply into their own hands to ensure a clean and just source of local energy. Feature stories over the years raised awareness about promising new technologies. We’ve excerpted expert reports on the potential of tapping energy efficiency in Guatemala and featured a plan to bring decentralized energy options to rural Mozambique, which would solve energy access problems much faster and more sustainably than planned dams on the Zambezi.