Civil Society Rejects Greenwashing of Dams at World Water Forum

Zachary Hurwitz

The World Water Forum is promoting large dams in the
The World Water Forum is promoting large dams in the "Green Economy"

As the 6th World Water Forum opened today in Marseille, France, International Rivers and our partners were there to shed light on their greenwashing of large dams. Displaying t-shirts that read "Large Dams Are Not Green," we attempted to enter the Forum's opening ceremony to send a message that civil society rejects the Forum's support for large dams, and its market-based approach to water.  However, security stopped us from entering the ceremony, despite the fact that we were accredited to do so.

We decried the Forum's embrace of the industry-led Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), a toothless scorecard that has no binding power to prevent environmental and human rights violations during the construction and implementation of dams. The Forum is promoting a return to large dams in the "Green Economy," though it is a business-as-usual path that will do little to sustain freshwater biodiversity, protect the world's river systems, or mitigate climate change.

Call for a Rights-Based Approach

In contrast, civil society organizations and dam-affected peoples from across Europe and the world will release a statement this week calling on "governments and financiers to prioritize the water and energy needs of the poor over the demands of the global market. We ask that all needs and options are assessed in a balanced, participatory process before new water and energy projects are approved. We call on all actors to strictly follow the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams in case such a process identifies a dam as the most appropriate option."

The statement calls on governments and financiers "not to endorse the voluntary approach of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol."

Marketing the Human Right to Water

Three Gorges Corporation is a supporter of the HSAP
Three Gorges Corporation is a supporter of the HSAP

This year's ministerial declaration at the World Water Forum - published March 13th – promotes the expansion of large-scale hydropower on the world's rivers. The draft declaration states "we intend to support the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, acknowledge hydro-power, consistent with sustainable development principles, as a viable renewable source of energy for many urban and rural areas and promote the production of “more energy per drop”, [and] investment in sustainable multi-purpose water storage."

The declaration also contends that "we need to build resilience to climate change and variability including through a more flexible and integrated land and water resources management system, by adopting strategies on both adaptation and mitigation, improving water use efficiency, regulation and storage, inland navigation, ecosystem services, wetland, forest and mountain ecosystems restoration and conservation as well as agricultural practices."  However, higher uncertainty in hydrological flows due to climate change will make storage reservoirs more ineffective in building climate resilience, and dams' large biodiversity impacts will only worsen the climate vulnerability of ecosystems and people.

The declaration's approach seeks to capitalize on the uneven language of the 2010 UN resolution of the right to water and sanitation, an agreement among 122 of the UN's 163 country representatives that does not yet fully recognize the breadth of water uses in its definition of access. The Forum's 2009 declaration recognized water not as a right but as a "basic human need," a distinction which at the time sparked protest from civil society and some governments. UN Special Rapporteur Caterina de Albuquerque blasted the Forum's ministers earlier this week for not making the UN right to water and sanitation an explicit part of the declaration until late.  It is evident here in Marseille that the World Water Forum is less interested in upholding the right to water of the world's vulnerable people, and more interested in marketing water for corporate profit.

International Day of Action for Rivers to be Celebrated in Marseille

On Wednesday, civil society representatives and dam-affected peoples from across the world will mobilize in Marseille to mark the International Day of Action for Rivers and reject the greenwashing of dams by the HSAP. We will call on governments and multilateral policy frameworks to refrain from adopting the HSAP due to its weakness compared with existing standards, laws and safeguards policies. We will reject the HSAP based on the conflict of interest inherent in its industry-led assessments and the low inclusion of civil society and indigenous peoples in its creation and implementation.  

Stay tuned as I send updates from Marseille this week.