Commentary: Yes We Can

Shannon Lawrence
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When the World Commission on Dams (WCD) issued its groundbreaking report 10 years ago, river-loving people around the world celebrated. We celebrated the findings that corroborated what we had long argued - that while dams may have delivered benefits, these have come with exceedingly high costs, particularly for vulnerable groups and the environment. We honored the millions who lost lands and livelihoods to disastrous dams, and the WCD case studies that bore witness to their struggles. We celebrated the successful conclusion of a grueling but critically important global exercise in multi-stakeholder participation, consultation and documentation. We cheered the WCD's recommendations for a better way to identify, design and implement water and energy projects.

Shannon Lawrence
Shannon Lawrence
We knew change would not come overnight, but we knew that it would come. We were disappointed - but sadly, not surprised - by the World Bank's failure to adopt the WCD recommendations. At the same time, we were inspired by the efforts of our partners around the world who initiated national dialogues to adapt the WCD framework to their local context. And we applauded the governments and institutions that did incorporate WCD recommendations and principles into their regulations. A number of the WCD's most important principles - from the right of indigenous peoples to give their free, prior and informed consent to dam projects affecting their lands and resources, to the need to preserve downstream ecosystems and livelihoods - have been endorsed by and codified in various policies and legal instruments.

Unfortunately, in the 10 years since the WCD report was released, the dam industry has failed to even try to implement its groundbreaking recommendations. While there are examples of compliance with particular WCD principles in various projects (some highlighted in this issue), we are still waiting for the dam that gets it right.

We know how to do it: the WCD framework provides the road map. What we're lacking are the political will and the long-term vision to make it happen. Do we want to live in a world without any free-flowing rivers? Can we sit by as poor communities are forced from their lands without due compensation? Do we accept that a costly and destructive dam should be built even before other alternatives to meet people's water or energy needs have been assessed? We should not have to.

It sounds a lot like the climate crisis. We know what needs to be done and we've identified ways - some imperfect and with compromises - to get us there. All we need is political leadership and the commitment to change a development model that too often brings short-term gain for some long-term devastation for many.

Society may not be willing to give up big dams, but most of us are also not willing to give up healthy rivers. We must find a better way. At the very least, we must design, build and operate dams better in the future. The case for sharing dam benefits with affected people; for legally enforceable agreements to be negotiated with affected people; for the problems of existing dams to be addressed before new ones are built; and for reparations to be provided for past harms is even stronger today than it was a decade ago. As renewable energy technologies have advanced, so has the argument for analyzing all energy options before launching into a process to build a big dam.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishers from Ethiopia to China, from Peru to Canada are today facing the impacts of new dams. Will the worst of these projects be scrapped in favor of better alternatives from an economic, social and environmental standpoint? Will the dams that go forward be better designed so that the impacts of the project are limited to the greatest extent possible? Will agreements be negotiated with affected people to see that they receive an equitable share of project benefits and fair compensation for what they will lose?

The answer to all of these questions should be yes. We have the tools; it's time to put them to work. The onus is on the dam builders and the funders who back them. Ten years on, our song remains the same: No dams without the WCD!