Doing Dams Right: The WCD in Practice

Katy Yan
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In the 10 years since the World Commission on Dams (WCD) released its landmark "Dams and Development" report, no single dam project has exemplified the full scope of its cutting-edge approach, and most dam building nations have failed to implement the WCD framework. But there have been some projects that demonstrate WCD principles in action, as well as laws and policies that reflect the principles espoused by the WCD. Here we highlight a few of these positive examples.

Tribal fishermen have fought for dam removal on the Klamath for years
Tribal fishermen have fought for dam removal on the Klamath for years
Bob Dawson
Addressing Existing Dams

Klamath River, US: In January 2010, a diverse group of stakeholders in the region agreed to remove four dams on the Klamath River. The final decision must be approved by California voters, but if it passes, Klamath could become the biggest dam removal in the US and possibly the world. In 2001, the Klamath River was known as one of the most contentious river basins in the country, with commercial fishermen and Native Americans on one side and ranchers and farmers on the other. FERC ruled in January 2007 that PacifiCorp, the utility that owns the dams, would have to install fish ladders and screens on the dams as a condition of renewing its license. As a result, PacifiCorp was forced to consider removal since ladders and screens would cost as much as $150 million more than dam removal. This recent case not only represents a positive example of stakeholder participation (and reconciliation), but also where addressing existing dams can lead to dam decommissioning.

Assessing Needs and Options

Small hydro, Nepal: In the 1990s, frustrated by the high costs – including financial, social and environmental – of big, foreign-led hydro projects like the proposed Arun III, Nepali engineers, economists and civil society started looking for cheaper alternatives. Although their efforts were initially met with skepticism, it became clear that primarily locally financed, locally built and locally managed smaller projects could help meet Nepal's electricity needs in a more affordable way. Today, many smaller hydro projects have been built throughout the country, increasing generation capacity by 294 MW. These alternatives, which took less time to develop and could be locally designed and built, provide electricity at about half the cost of the original Arun III proposal.

Managing Downstream Impacts

The Penobscot River
The Penobscot River
Lia Morris
Penobscot River Dams, US: The Federal Power Act requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider not only the power generation potential of a river, but also to give equal consideration to other values such as energy conservation, protection of fish and wildlife, recreational opportunities, and preservation of general environmental quality when deciding whether to issue a dam license. In 2005, a diverse group of stakeholders participating in a dam re-licensing process came to a far-reaching agreement with the dams' owner to help restore Maine's Penobscot River and its fisheries. This innovative agreement resulted in the formation of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which was granted the option to purchase three Penobscot dams and remove the two lower ones. The company also agreed to decommission another dam and install improved fish passages. These measures will restore 1,000 miles of historic habitat for native sea-run fish, renewing opportunities for the Penobscot Indian Nation to exercise their sustenance fishing rights, and create new tourism opportunities for nearby communities. In turn, the company was permitted to increase generation at six other dams, which maintains existing power production levels.

Lesotho Highlands Water Project: The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is one of the world's largest water-transfer projects. In addition to resettling over 20,000 people, the project has affected some 150,000 people downstream. The first two dams in the scheme are complete, but critical social and environmental problems affecting reservoir-affected villagers are still unresolved. One improvement for downstream communities is an environmental flow requirement established in 2003.

As the first dam, Katse, neared completion in 1997, international pressure forced an assessment of the project's impacts to downstream ecosystems and communities. The LHWP environmental flows study analyzed how changes to the way water was released from the dams could reduce the impact on both downstream river ecosystems and on the livelihoods of people living alongside them. The resulting Instream Flow Requirement Policy specified operating rules for the dams and a program to monitor compliance with the agreed releases. In 2006-07, the rivers downstream of the dams had either met or improved upon their target ecological condition. The costs of the environmental flows, including compensation, were only 0.5% of project costs.

Sharing Benefits

Maguga Dam, Swaziland: Ensuring that adversely affected people share in project benefits is a key WCD tenet, and one that goes beyond merely compensating people for their losses. The Maguga project truly took this principle to heart. Located on the Komati River, the dam was built in 2001, almost simultaneously with the WCD process taking place in South Africa. The project was intended to support commercial forestry and sugar cane plantations in South Africa and Swaziland, and provide irrigation for about 1,000 of Swaziland's small farmers. South Africa helped pay for the dam and is guaranteed 60% of the project's water, with the rest going to Swaziland. Some 90 households were resettled, and another 125 suffered some impacts. Ultimately, the project's resettlement was successful because it incorporated WCD principles.

Resettlers from Maguga are happy with their new lives
Resettlers from Maguga are happy with their new lives
Liane Greeff
Affected communities received water, electricity, and jobs from the project, assistance with setting up farming cooperatives, and health and sports facilities. An independent dispute resolution process was established that could order the Komati Basin Water Authority to pay significant amounts to affected people. The Maguga communities were able to decide how they wanted their new houses to be built. They could also decide to use part of the money they received for housing to develop businesses or purchase communal equipment. The project took steps to mitigate environmental impacts as well, by minimizing the size of the reservoir. Today, most people say they are better off than they were before the dam - an extremely rare situation in the history of dam-induced resettlement. The success of this project is in part because project authorities in Swaziland and South Africa were determined not to repeat the mistakes of other water projects in the region, and also because the affected people were organized and had strong leadership.