Hydro Industry Seeks to Weaken Standards

Peter Bosshard
Monday, March 2, 2009

For decades, communities affected by projects such as dams, mines or pipelines were asked to trust the good intentions and promises of project developers. This voluntary approach resulted in a legacy of broken promises, environmental degradation, corruption, conflict, and development disasters.

Like dam investors and contractors, affected communities can’t just rely on promises to safeguard their interests. They need legally enforceable rights. For more than 20 years, civil society networks have promoted binding policies and standards which safeguard the rights of affected people and the environment. Their struggles resulted in policies and conventions which (among other things) defined the right of indigenous peoples to “free, prior, informed consent,” enshrined the right of displaced people to land-for-land compensation, safeguarded labor rights, and preserved ecological no-go areas. The dam industry is now trying to roll back this progress.

A rights-based approach…

The World Commission on Dams (WCD) strongly embraced a rights-based approach to dam building. The Commission’s report found in 2000 that “an approach based on the recognition of rights and assessment of risks can lay the basis for greatly improved and significantly more legitimate decision-making on water and energy development. This is an effective way to determine who has a legitimate place at the negotiation table and what issues need to be included on the agenda.” The WCD report empowered affected communities to be not just passive victims of development projects, but actors at the negotiating table.

The dam industry was never happy with the WCD’s rights-based approach. Together with a few governments, financial institutions and conservation organizations, the International Hydropower Association in 2007 created the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum (HSAF) to come up with a new approach. The official goal of this forum is to “develop a broadly endorsed sustainability assessment tool to measure and guide performance in the hydropower sector” by the end of 2009.

HSAF is preparing a new Sustainability Assessment Protocol with guidelines on more than 80 aspects of dam projects. Each aspect will be elaborated through a list of criteria. HSAF proposes that dams be scored according to these criteria in order to decide whether or not projects can be considered sustainable. The dam industry hopes that it will be able to attract public subsidies and carbon credits for dams which pass an HSAF score card.

…to be replaced by consultant-speak?

The HSAF members claim that their process “is not an attempt to duplicate or rewrite the WCD outcomes.” Yet an interim document which the HSAF released for consultation in January espouses a perspective which is very different from the WCD’s rights-based approach. If adopted, the new approach would represent a huge setback in international development policy.

The HSAF document doesn’t identify any minimum standards or requirements that dams must fulfill in order to be considered sustainable. It instead expresses a view that all impacts can be handled and mitigated through a host of consultants’ reports and management plans. The following examples illustrate this approach:

  • The draft document does not require that dam developers comply with national law, international human rights norms, and international conventions on issues such as transboundary rivers.
  • The document does not recognize indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, informed consent about projects (such as dams) that affect their lives. It simply proposes assessing whether dam developers “understand the legal rights as embedded in national and international law.”
  • The document does not recognize the right of affected people to have access to information about projects, but instead proposes measuring the “quality of the project communication strategy.”
  • The document does not require any land-based com-pensation for dam-affected people. Instead it proposes to measure the “degree of change in living standard of directly affected stakeholders” and the “level of com-pliance with resettlement legislation and standards requirement” (without identifying any standards).
  • The HSAF document does not prescribe international competitive bidding for dam contracts, which is a standard requirement to discourage corruption in large projects. It merely proposes measuring criteria such as the “quality of the bidding documents, including addressing anti-bribery issues.”
  • Instead of defining labor rights (such as the right to unionize) in dam construction, the document proposes scoring attributes such as the “quality of the labor management system.”
  • The document does not respect any no-go areas for dam building such as national parks or World Heritage Sites. It instead proposes measuring the “quality of plans to manage for biodiversity and conservation objectives” and the “degree to which biodiversity and habitat manage-ment plan is likely to achieve objectives.”

Excluded from the negotiating table

The process through which the new Sustainability Assessment Protocol is being prepared illustrates how the dam industry works to disenfranchise affected people. While all interested groups were invited to participate in the WCD process from the beginning, the HSAF is a self-selected group. Dam-affected people and advocacy groups are not represented at the negotiating table. The Forum started a belated consultation process in January, half-way through the HSAF process. Even then, it did not translate key documents or support affected people to effectively participate in the process.

“The dam industry is looking for NGOs’ endorsement for what they have already framed as a policy document,” comments Ali Askouri, an activist from the area affected by the Merowe Dam in Sudan.

In conclusion, the HSAF’s approach ignores the hard lessons of decades of development disasters. Mitigation plans, consultant reports and scorecards cannot replace minimum standards and enforceable rights. Trying to do so will not find the broad endorsement that the dam industry is currently seeking.