The Difficulty of the Plains: Taking the WCD forward

Patrick McCully
Saturday, June 15, 2002

When the difficulty
Of the mountains is once behind
That's when you'll see
The difficulty of the plains will start.
-Bertholt Brecht

Five years ago, former South African water minister Kader Asmal banged a lectern in a London conference center and declared the World Commission on Dams  “decommissioned.” The winding up of the commission after 30 months of work was a moment of tremendous satisfaction for International Rivers and our colleagues around the world.

We had worked for years to push the World Bank and other dam backers to set up such an independent review body, and then worked even harder to convince the commissioners of the reality of what dams have done to rivers and society, and to disprove the propaganda of the big dam lobby. Now, in the presence of Nelson Mandela and other global dignitaries, the commission’s final report had been released to the world’s media and its conclusions largely backed up what dam critics had been saying for years.

In the self-congratulatory buzz of the launch it was easy to believe that the dam industry would have little choice but to get on board with the commission’s report. In the following weeks and months, numerous engineering firms, banks, governments and UN agencies came out with messages of support for the commission’s recommendations.

But we would have done well to heed the message in the quote from Bertholt Brecht that Professor Asmal presciently used in his keynote address at the launch. The first signs of the “difficulty in the plains” to come was evident at the launch itself in World Bank President James Wolfensohn’s lukewarm welcome for the report. The World Bank’s main commitment was only to “consult” with borrower governments on what their response should be. These World Bank consultations -– with bureaucrats in the water and power ministries of the world’s most active dam building countries – came up with the responses that the Bank had obviously hoped for. Basically, the Bank informed the world, their borrowers wanted as many big dams as possible, and who was the World Bank to say no to them.

Since that initial round of consultations, the Bank – and in particular its former Senior Water Advisor, John Briscoe – has worked steadily to confuse policy makers about the contents of the WCD report and to encourage them to reject its findings and recommendations (while doing nothing to encourage them to actually read and understand the report). The Bank’s main water staff now rarely even refer to the WCD in their media interviews and presentations at water and energy industry conferences. Their blind faith that big dams by definition equal progress negates not only the comprehensive work of the WCD but 70 years of experience with corrupt, pork-barrel decision-making, ruined rivers, unpayable debts, and impoverished and sickened people.

Yet while it has not been easy going on the post-WCD Brechtian plains, the World Bank has also not succeeded in burying the WCD report, and has not yet succeeded in revitalizing the dam industry. Five years after its launch the WCD’s findings are essential reading for anyone interested in the costs and benefits of dams, and its recommendations are the “gold standard” for dam planning and construction. As this issue of World Rivers Review shows, numerous initiatives are underway across the world to turn the WCD into national and institutional policies. Activists for water and energy justice around the world continue to learn from the WCD’s findings and push for the implementation of its recommendations. Decision-makers and opinion-formers without a vested interest in dam-building continue to be open to working with the report. Recent successes have included support for the WCD by one of the world’s largest private banks (HSBC) and two of its largest public banks (the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank).

Proponents of energy and water solutions have succeeded in keeping the WCD report alive for the past five years and in making progress to get its recommendations into policy and legislation. Key challenges for the next five years will be to keep the report at the forefront of dam-related policy debates, to keep using it to improve policies, and, to start working to ensure that WCD-related policy reform results in better practices on the ground (and in the water).

Our press release at the launch of the WCD said: "If the builders and funders of dams follow the recommendations of the WCD, the era of destructive dams should come to an end." We continue to believe this, and are doing all we can to promote the WCD and so hasten the arrival of an era of water and energy projects that meet the needs of all the world's people while not destroying the planet.