Bad Student: Has the World Bank Learned Its Lessons?

Last week, I attended the World Bank meetings in Lima to highlight the World Bank’s checkered history with financing large dams, and to push for more thorough and cleaner solutions.

A veteran of 18 of these semi-annual affairs, I’ve learned to temper my expectations that the Bank will internalize the hard-won lessons from the environmental and social toll that its projects have taken. Still, I was unprepared to hear Jorg Frieden, Swiss representative on the World Bank’s board, ignoring this history altogether: “The World Bank should finance a lot more dams, so we can learn from our mistakes and make them even better in the future.”

Jorg Frieden speaking at board roundtable in Lima
Jorg Frieden speaking at board roundtable in Lima

The problem is, the Bank has been making mistakes on the backs of communities for decades, without seeming to learn its lessons. During a panel we helped organize on resettlement impacts, the World Bank’s director overseeing resettlement, Maninder Gill, spoke about his experience in the 1990s being put in charge of the botched resettlement process for a dam on India’s Narmada River that left hundreds of thousands of people penniless.

While things have certainly improved since then, a World Bank audit released in April showed that the Bank lost track of literally millions of people displaced by its projects, unable to say whether they have been left worse off. 

At the panel, Paul Brotherton from Wetlands International also presented about the downstream impacts expected from the Bank-supported Fomi Dam on the Niger River in Guinea. He told participants that the dam “could impact two million people living downstream in Mali on the margins of the Sahara Desert, who rely on the river for farming, livestock and fishing.” In response, Maninder Gill noted that the Bank has learned how to mitigate downstream impacts, citing Nam Theun 2 in Laos as evidence of improvement. In fact, Nam Theun 2 has had significant negative impacts on the lives of 150,000 people downstream; Fomi Dam would impact many, many more.

Maninder Gill, World Bank, speaking about Narmada Dams during resettlement panel
Maninder Gill, World Bank, speaking about Narmada Dams during resettlement panel

Holes in the Story

Throughout the week, experts and activists punched holes in the glossy messages the World Bank was trying to push.

During a separate panel on dams we hosted, Dr. Philip Fearnside from the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) powerfully debunked the myth that dams are part of the clean energy mix, presenting the science of the methane “bomb” that tropical reservoirs including Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam and others are creating, making some dams as destructive to the climate as coal plants.

Even as the World Bank was saluting the Peruvian “economic miracle,” Ruth Buendia, winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, challenged this narrative. She says the rights of Peru’s indigenous communities, including her own Ashaninka people, are being trampled in the name of “development,” to make way for destructive mines and dams. She shared a video about indigenous challenges to the Pakitzapango Dam, which communities have thus far fended off with support from International Rivers.

Ruth Buendia speaking about indigenous resistance to destructive dams
Ruth Buendia speaking about indigenous resistance to destructive dams

And as all these issues swirled, the Bank’s own president, Jim Kim, referenced perhaps the biggest elephant in the room during an event on climate change: “We now have to ask ourselves in every infrastructure investment we make: Can we do it in a way that’s climate smart?” If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that the answer for dams is no. Their viability is already being severely compromised by climate change, from Brazil to Zambia.

As Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, added “What is truly needed at an accelerated pace to support developing countries, is to do with energy what has been done with cellular telephones – completely leapfrogging landlines.” This is “analogous to extending the grid where it’s no longer possible – and move to decentralized renewable energy that is actually going to give access to energy and allow a much more stable development.”

The Bank’s own employees and allies increasingly seem to know that big, centralized dams and coal plants are a model of the past. It’s time they learn their lessons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015