The World Commission on Dams Framework - A Brief Introduction

Friday, February 29, 2008

With support from the World Bank and IUCN, the independent World Commission on Dams (WCD) was created in May 1998. Its mandate was to review the development effectiveness of dams, and to develop standards and guidelines for future dams. The Commission was chaired by South Africa’s water minister Kader Asmal and consisted of twelve members from governments, industry, academia, and civil society.

During its two-year lifetime, the WCD carried out the most comprehensive evaluation of large dams ever done to date. It commissioned 130 technical papers, studied seven dams and three dam-building countries in great depth, reviewed another 125 dams in less detail, carried out consultations in different parts of the world with 1,400 participants, and accepted 950 submissions from experts and the interested public. Altogether, the WCD reviewed experiences from 1,000 dams in 79 countries.

The WCD concluded that while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development,” in “too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.” For example, dams have physically displaced 40-80 million people worldwide, and most of these people have never regained their former livelihoods. In many cases, dams have led to a significant and irreversible loss of species and ecosystems, and efforts to mitigate these impacts have often not been successful.

To improve development outcomes of water and energy projects, the World Commission on Dams presented a new framework for decision-making based on recognizing the rights and assessing the risks of all interested parties. The WCD framework puts forward seven general “strategic priorities” each based on a set of “policy principles.” A set of 26 “guidelines for good practice” lay out specific actions for complying with the strategic priorities at five key stages of the project development process. The list below summarizes the WCD’s recommendations in ten points.

After publishing its final report in November 2000, the WCD dissolved. Yet the WCD framework lives on and has become the most important benchmark in international dam building. Several governments – including Germany, Nepal, South Africa, Sweden and Vietnam – have organized dialogue processes to integrate WCD recommendations into national policy. The World Bank, export credit agencies and the International Hydropower Association, while critical of specific recommendations, have endorsed the WCD’s strategic priorities. The member states of the EU have decided that carbon credits from large dams can only be sold on the European market if the projects comply with the WCD framework. International Carbon Investors & Services, a group of international banks and other bodies involved in carbon trading, also require WCD compliance for large hydro projects.

The requirement for dams to comply with the WCD framework under EU and other policies has created a demand for guidance on how to implement the framework and assess compliance with it. The “criteria checklists” and guidelines in chapter 9 of the WCD report are key to these tasks. Some governments have also prepared their own checklists and guidelines. The following list is not a checklist for developers, but an illustrative sample of key WCD recommendations compiled by International Rivers.

Key WCD recommendations:

1. Development needs and objectives should be clearly formulated through an open and participatory process, before various project options are identified.

2. A balanced and comprehensive assessment of all options should be conducted, giving social and environmental aspects the same significance as technical, economic and financial factors.

3. Before a decision is taken to build a new dam, outstanding social and environmental issues from existing dams should be addressed, and the benefits from existing projects should be maximized.

4. All stakeholders should have the opportunity for informed participation in decision-making processes related to large dams through stakeholder fora. Public acceptance of all key decisions should be demonstrated. Decisions affecting indigenous peoples should be taken with their free, prior and informed consent.

5. The project should provide entitlements to affected people to improve their livelihoods and ensure that they receive the priority share of project benefits (beyond compensation for their losses). Affected people include communities living downstream of dams and those affected by dam-related infrastructure such as transmission lines and irrigation canals.

6. Affected people should be able to negotiate mutually agreed and legally enforceable agreements to ensure the implementation of mitigation, resettlement and development entitlements.

7. The project should be selected based on a basin-wide assessment of the river ecosystem and an attempt to avoid significant impacts on threatened and endangered species.

8. The project should provide for the release of environmental flows to help maintain downstream ecosystems.

9. Mechanisms to ensure compliance with regulations and negotiated agreements should be developed and budgeted for, compliance mechanisms should be established, and compliance should be subject to independent review.

10. A dam should not be constructed on a shared river if other riparian States raise an objection that is upheld by an independent panel.