Dam Crusader’s Swan Song

Anonymous Crusader
Anonymous Crusader

A high-level independent evaluation found two years ago that the World Bank’s research agenda was often politicized, and that “technically flawed and in some cases strong policy positions have been supported by such (non) evidence”. A new book, Indirect Economic Impacts of Dams, is the latest example of such politicized research. The book, astonishingly, only considers the benefits and ignores the costs of dams. It is the parting shot of the Bank’s main large dam crusader, John Briscoe.

A native of South Africa, John Briscoe joined the World Bank in 1986 and became the institution’s senior water advisor in 1996. At the Bank, the converted Marxist applied his missionary zeal to the agenda of promoting large dams. After 1997, he became the World Bank’s main point person for the independent World Commission on Dams. Together with a representative of IUCN, Briscoe personally helped select the Commission’s members. They included South Africa’s water minister as the chair, an energy minister under Brazil’s former military government, a veteran Indian public servant, an honorary chair person of the dam industry’s main trade association, and several other distinguished experts from industry, academia, and civil society.

When the creation of the WCD was first discussed at a workshop in Gland, Switzerland, John told me he was confident that an independent evaluation would confirm the World Bank’s position on large dams. When the Commission published its highly critical report in 2000, he felt personally betrayed and went on a mission to undermine its recommendations. On countless occasions, Briscoe knowingly misrepresented the Commission’s findings and recommendations. In an insult to the Commissioners whom he had helped select, he claimed that Southern governments had effectively been excluded from the WCD process. As we learned from several sources, Briscoe also pressured Southern governments and institutions such as the African Development Bank to speak out against the WCD framework.

Briscoe and other critics complained that the World Commission on Dams had not sufficiently considered the indirect economic impacts of dams. In order to fill this gap, the World Bank commissioned a book which has just been published by India’s Academic Foundation. The book is based on a total of four empirical case studies – of the Bhakra and Bunga dams in India, Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, and the Sobradinho Dam in Brazil. In comparison, the WCD report was based on approximately 1000 expert submissions, more than 100 technical studies, ten in-depth case studies, and a cross-check survey of 125 dams.

Most astonishingly, the book exclusively considers positive indirect economic impacts of dams. It for example calculates the growth of rural jobs in the command area of the Bhakra Project as an indirect economic benefit of the Bhakra Dam. (As will be elaborated below, this increase was caused by a variety of different factors.) Except for some token references, the study fails to take into account the indirect costs of dam construction – for example the impoverishment of the people displaced by the Bhakra Dam. The authorities only considered the 36,000 people who lost land as affected by the project, and disregarded the landless who were also displaced. Fifty years after dam construction, the affected people have still not been properly rehabilitated. What’s the indirect cost of this neglect?

Shripad Dharmadhikary and Himanshu Thakkar have shown in separate reviews that the book's case study on the Bhakra Dam is extremely sloppy. As indicated above, the case study attributes the strong growth in agricultural output in the states of Punjab and Haryana to the Bhakra Dam. However, the major driving forces behind this growth were the industrialization of the agricultural sector with massive inputs of chemicals, financial subsidies, and an explosive growth in groundwater pumping. While the Bhakra Project continues to operate, the agricultural system which it supposedly sustains is on the verge of collapse due to degraded soils, falling groundwater tables and the ever-increasing costs of chemical inputs.

Based on the lopsided approach of the case studies, Briscoe concludes that “indirect impacts [of dams] are real and large – typically of the same order of magnitude as the direct effects”. He claims that these “striking results” confirm “the transformative role of large water infrastructure”.

The motivation of the new research was political, and the World Bank has already tried to get maximum political mileage out of it. While he was stationed in South Asia, John Briscoe developed new water sector strategies for India and Pakistan. Contrary to the findings of World Bank evaluations of past experience, he proposed a return to building large dams for both countries. In both cases, he used the Bhakra case study as a key argument. Brushing aside the estimated 42 million people who have been displaced by dams in India, Briscoe argued that “the record is overwhelmingly clear – investments in water infrastructure in India have resulted in massive reductions in poverty”. In the case of Pakistan, he argued in 2005 that “the single most important finding from research shows that the central issue for poverty reduction is not who gets the water, but how that water transforms the demand for labor”. The only source for this “most important finding” was the Bhakra case study which he had commissioned himself. Yet while using this case study for political purposes in both countries, Briscoe refused to make it available for critical review by the interested public.

Inside the World Bank, many people didn’t share John Briscoe’s zeal and heavy-handed tactics. The senior water advisor was known for bullying colleagues who didn’t agree with him. Yet the institution’s senior management supported his mission even if they knew about his questionable tactics. They asked him to prepare the World Bank’s new water sector strategy in 2002/03. Against all evidence and the consensus of international experts, Briscoe claimed in this strategy that “low-cost, often community based solutions” and “easy and cheap options” have been “mostly exploited”. As a consequence, he called for the World Bank to “re-engage with high reward/high risk hydraulic infrastructure” (or in plain speak, large dams).

Former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, no stranger to political crusades, was so impressed by John Briscoe that he promoted him to become the Bank’s country director for Brazil in 2005. In turn, Briscoe did not join 35 (of the Bank’s 37) country directors who asked for Wolfowitz to resign over his personal misconduct two years later.

The World Bank commissioned the research on the indirect impacts of dams but did not officially publish the new book. (The copyright is with the Bank, but India’s Academic Foundation fronts as the sole publisher.) John Briscoe will leave the Bank later this year – some say, in frustration over the limited success of his campaign to push the institution back into funding large dams. He will join Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as a professor in 2009. It will be interesting to see whether he can reconcile his missionary zeal with scientific rigor under his new academic hat.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard