Why the WCD Still Matters

Deborah Moore
Monday, August 15, 2005
World Rivers Review, October/December 2005

Five years ago, the World Commission on Dams – on which I served as one of 12 commissioners – culminated with the release of our report, Dams and Development. I find it a useful exercise to pause and reflect on one’s work, to understand its impacts, to examine your hopes or disappointments, and to simply sift through memories once the daily frenzy of actually doing the work is past. The WCD's fifth anniversary has been the occasion for me to reflect.

The mandate given to the WCD was an enormous challenge: evaluate the “development effectiveness” – the economic, social and environmental impacts – of large dams worldwide, and develop criteria and guidelines for managing the entire lifecycle of dams and finding alternatives to dams. Another difficult task was to create an open and participatory process that was global in scope. Many people inside and outside the WCD didn’t believe that 12 people representing different perspectives on the dams debate could come to agreement. Indeed, at our very first meeting, I noted that since my usual adversaries were all assembled around the table, the only group I could still struggle against were the naysayers, those saying, “it can’t be done.” In that light, we succeeded: as a Commission we did come to agreement on a remarkable and precedent-setting report that five years later is still actively being tested, considered, and adopted.

For me, the WCD was an extraordinary personal and professional journey. There was the mundane: the odd hours you keep when working on a global scale, the mountains of papers read and analyzed. There were the weeks away from my then-three-year-old daughter. There was the rigor: the perseverance, eye for detail, and quest for data from all involved. And ultimately, there were the stories: the commitment from thousands of people around the world to have their stories told. I still feel honored that so many people spent their time and resources to tell us their stories – their truths – from whichever angle. It was exciting to have been part of such an incredible group of people and the camaraderie was genuine. The relationships and trust built between us have outlasted the Commission, and many of us remain in contact as colleagues and friends. Truly, I felt humbled to take part in this historic process.

I came into the WCD with a commitment to creating an innovative and participatory process, a commitment to ensuring that the quantitative analysis was objective and un-biased, and that the qualitative analysis would accurately report the ranges of perspectives. Finally, I brought my own experience in working to protect rivers and river-dependent communities, to find sensible “win-win” alternatives to large dams, and to avoid poorly planned, expensive infrastructure projects. I had worked on projects in a variety of countries, but was looking forward to learning the experiences from other places.

There were some definite surprises, and some disappointments, in our process and in our findings. I was surprised that we found that a few hydropower dams in our sample were over-performers in electricity production. The majority of dams we examined were under-performers in almost all aspects (financial, economic, productivity); however, there were some that over-performed and that can serve as models. Yet, the under-performance also gave rise to my continuing hope and belief that a vigorous and concerted effort to improve the performance of existing dams could greatly improve the development benefits from the world’s gargantuan historic investments. Unfortunately, I was also surprised by how few positive examples of resettlement there were. I expected that the truly global scope of our efforts would uncover previously unnoticed examples where resettlement worked. Sadly, our field visits, public hearings, cross-check analysis, and case studies showed that over and over and over again the people who were displaced received the least. We saw such a sad pattern repeated: visiting dam sites and then visiting displaced villages within sight of the dam that had not received services decades after the reservoir was filled. In Brazil, we did learn of communities that had successfully negotiated resettlement, and the key there was involving the communities as partners.

I was also shocked several times. Hearing from survivors about the massacres of people displaced by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala was horrific and served as a touchstone for Commissioners to resolve that such atrocities would not be repeated. I have also been disillusioned that since the report was released some people and institutions have consistently worked to misrepresent the report’s findings and recommendations. One glaring example is the misunderstanding created around the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” for indigenous and tribal peoples. Many now believe that the WCD promoted a policy giving “veto power” to indigenous peoples when the report clearly states that “when a negotiated consensus cannot be achieved through good faith negotiations within the agreed-upon timeframe, the established independent dispute resolutions mechanisms are initiated. … Where a settlement does not emerge, the State will act as the final arbitrator, subject to judicial review” (p. 281), which is existing law in most countries. There are other instances where different interests have manipulated the report’s findings about the performance of dams, when it is clear that there are so many patterns of under-performance.

Since the report’s release, I am most disappointed by the lack of on-the-ground implementation of new approaches recommended by the WCD and by how quickly the open-minded spirit during the WCD process returned to polarization. My hope had been that the WCD’s analysis – showing how large dams had not performed as promised and how enormous the potential was for meeting needs by improving the performance of existing dams and implementing non-dam alternatives – would lead to major global support from NGOs, the private sector, development agencies, and governments for massive increases in investments for small-scale, community-based water, electricity, and agriculture projects and rehabilitation of existing dam projects. Why, for example, has the broader global water community not adopted specific goals and timetables – such as the goal of getting 15 million hectares of small farms under low-cost drip irrigation in 15 years, as called for by International Development Enterprises, who specialize in such projects?

And I am frustrated by the rekindled support of the World Bank for what are now superficially dubbed “high risk, high reward” dams, when the WCD report shows that time and time again these projects are “high risk, low reward.” This support is particularly irksome when “low risk, high reward” projects are now more broadly accepted as producing tangible, low-cost results for poor communities faster, yet still suffer from completely inadequate investment. Even former US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was persuaded that such community-based water projects were feasible; sadly he resigned before he could influence US foreign aid in that direction.

In the end, five years later, I am most gratified that the WCD strategic priorities, policy principles and, to some degree, the guidelines have become the de-facto international standard, whether or not they have been formally adopted by all dam-building institutions. In fact, many organizations have adopted the report, are using its recommendations, and are creating national-level processes to consider the report, with more joining them all the time. I have been pleased that communities and grassroots organizations around the world see that the WCD’s report, which could be seen as a dry policy document, is relevant to their lives and are using it as a tool to create change in their own situations. And I am excited by several processes that are creating opportunities for the WCD’s recommendations to be tested and implemented, including the European Union’s law and “Linking Directive” establishing methods for how hydropower dams will be considered to receive “carbon credits,” and the multi-stakeholder process in South Africa to adapt and integrate the WCD report into national policies.

Actually, the WCD report has quite a lot of very practical recommendations, and is not anywhere near as “pie in the sky” as it is portrayed by some. The Strategic Priorities and the corresponding Policy Principles – from Gaining Public Acceptance to Addressing Existing Dams, from Recognising Entitlements and Sharing Benefits to Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods – were developed in direct response to the results of our rigorous analysis that showed continuing under-performance of large dams and ongoing, widespread social and environmental problems that undermined the development effectiveness of dams. Most of the recommendations are drawn from actual, on-the-ground experience, such as adapting the use of performance bonds to improve accountability with social and environmental agreements. Ultimately, most of the recommendations and guidelines are aimed at generating better information for decision-makers throughout the dam-planning and operation process and at elevating dam-affected communities from “involuntary risk bearers” to respected partners with recognized power in the development decision-making process.

So, is the WCD report still relevant? I give a resounding “yes,” because the real problems and issues have not gone away in the past five years, and the solutions are still needed, now more than ever. There is ongoing pressure to find solutions to expand access to water and energy services, reduce poverty, and protect aquatic ecosystems, all of which will be exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The WCD’s proposals were based on a deep understanding of what had gone wrong, why existing policies and safeguards had failed, and how the management of dams and other development projects could be better managed to truly produce effective and sustainable economic development.

My challenge to the naysayers who still remain skeptical of the WCD is: what is there to lose? What is the worst-case scenario for implementing the WCD’s recommendations – that it fails to fully solve the problems with large dams? My answer is that this is exactly where we are today – the status quo fails to solve the ongoing problems associated with the planning, management and construction of large dams. Truly, the real failure is the failure of imagination and courage to try something new on the part of those in control of the investment in, planning for, and management of large dams and water projects.

Why not harness the open-mindedness, that hopeful spirit and goodwill that existed during the lifetime of the WCD? Why not join together the resources and creativity of all sides and make a go of truly addressing the problems of poverty, lack of access to water services, social justice, and environmental protection? What if we take a real risk – a political leap of faith – and work together to quadruple public and private investment for water and energy conservation, small-scale, community-based development, and environmental restoration programs; to scale up the successful “pilot programs” we all see around the world; to recognize communities’ rights and build partnerships with them to address their needs? What if the dam-building industry re-tools and diversifies, as so many other industries have done in the last several decades?

To be honest, the continued fighting seems a waste of precious resources, time, spirit, and personal energy – much less a waste of rivers and people’s lives – at a time when we could be collaborating on bringing to fruition some fantastic, innovative solutions. The WCD process showed me that collaboration can work, that agreement on complex issues can be reached – but it takes hard work, trust, a suspension of cynicism, shared goals, and respect for the different skills people bring to the effort. Those that hold the purse strings could openly invite and welcome joint proposals for investments to scale-up non-dam development projects from governments, the private sector, and NGOs. NGOs, communities, the private sector, academic experts, and people’s movements could join together to develop a clear blueprint for the process and mechanisms for implementing community-based development projects on a massive scale. Such initiatives are happening, but they seem to remain small and marginalized.

Despite the frustrations or disappointments, I remain excited and optimistic that the WCD report and the follow-on processes it has spawned can provide a means to the ends of peace, justice, and sustainable human development. This can happen only if together we can recapture the spirit of compassion, collaboration, and cooperation that the WCD helped create for a certain moment in time. I encourage all of us to recognize that “we all live downstream” – that our collective health and livelihoods are inextricably intertwined – and I invite all of us to redouble our efforts to work together on mutually beneficial solutions.

The author was one of the WCD commissioners.