Perseverance to Protect Wild Areas Pays Off at UN Meeting

Katy Yan

Kaziranga National Park in India
Kaziranga National Park in India
Far Horizon India Tours

During this year's UNESCO World Heritage meeting, the World Heritage Committee issued some of the strongest language yet to countries with dam building activity in their World Heritage properties. While it awaits to be seen how this language is translated into action, it could be a positive step forward for many of the activists, experts, and dam-affected peoples who have been working tirelessly for months, and at times years, to protect their natural and cultural heritage. Thanks to their perseverance, the Committee this year has called on three countries to halt dam construction within their properties, and issued warnings to four others.


A Lisu woman in the Nu Valley
A Lisu woman in the Nu Valley

For the Three Parallel Rivers in China, the struggle to stop dam building around the property has been going on for over seven years. While local and international groups, experts, and the World Heritage Committee have repeatedly called for China to release the environmental impact assessments for all the dams being planned on the Nu and Jinsha rivers, no information has been released, making it almost impossible to know what the impacts might be for one of China's most biologically and culturally diverse areas. Earlier this year, International Rivers and Chinese NGOs sent IUCN first-hand accounts on dam building in the property, including information on Songta Dam, which is undergoing site preparation on the Nu River just north of the property. While the Committee failed to note this, it noted two other dams on the Jinsha River and called on the Chinese government to:

"submit to the World Heritage Centre by 1 February 2012 a detailed list and map of all proposed dams and mines that could affect the property, and to submit to the World Heritage Centre the Environmental Impact Assessments for any such dam and mining proposals, prior to their approval."

Costa Rica/Panama

Children swimming in the Changuinola River in La Amistad
Children swimming in the Changuinola River in La Amistad
Asociación ANAI

For La Amistad, the Committee has called on Panama and Costa Rica to invite IUCN and the World Heritage Centre on a monitoring mission to assess its conservation status. Scientists with the Asociación ANAI have repeatedly described the dire impacts that dam building would cause to migratory fauna in reports to IUCN and UNESCO. The World Heritage Committee last year had requested Panama to halt all dam constructions until a detailed transboundary SEA had been undertaken. Since then, reports on the ground have repeatedly described the ongoing construction of dams on the Changuinola and Bonyic rivers. The final Committee decision expressed:

"serious concern that the State Party of Panama has not halted dam construction on the Changuinola and Bonyic rivers...and considers that ongoing discussions over the construction of new dams within the property in Costa Rica, if not immediately resolved, could lead to conditions whereby the integrity of the property would be considered threatened."


The colors of Lake Turkana
The colors of Lake Turkana
Christophe Cerisier

For Lake Turkana in Kenya, the Committee has called on Ethiopia to halt construction of Gibe III Dam upstream of the lake (See "UN Body Calls for Suspension of Gibe III Dam" for more information.). Prompted by Friends of Lake Turkana and the anthropologist Richard Leaky, IUCN began to seriously investigate the threat of the Gibe III Dam last year. IUCN produced a strong report on the project's likely threat to Lake Turkana. Further pressure was applied at the Committee meeting this June through letters by International Rivers and our partners, and by a young Kenyan activist who spoke out against the project and its impacts on her people. In its final decision, the Committee:

"urge[d] the State Party of Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam."

While the language in these cases is strong, the threat of dams to a number of other sites was overlooked. International Rivers and our partners will continue to improve the information flow between IUCN and the researchers and activists working tirelessly on the ground – counterbalancing the lack of transparency from their own countries. We will call on the World Heritage Committee to make dams a no-go issue, and urge them to investigate the threat of dams to other sites in the World Heritage list. And we will step up the pressure on specific host countries to meet their responsibilities under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. While no destructive dams were stopped through this process, may it be one drop among many that eventually wears away the stone.

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The Committee made final decisions relating to planned/existing dams for the sites below. Click on the site names below to read the full decisions:

CountrySite Name
Highlights from the Decisions
ChinaThree Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas
Calls on China to submit all EIAs and update its progress on SEAs regarding dams on the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha rivers.
Costa Rica/PanamaTalamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park Considers any discussions of dams in Costa Rica could lead to threatening the integrity of the property (which is grounds for danger listing), and requests a monitoring mission to assess the threat of ongoing dam construction this year. 
HondurasRío Plátano Biosphere ReserveInscribes the site on the danger list and urges Honduras to review with the World Heritage Centre and IUCN all dam construction plans and activities on the Patuca River.
KenyaLake Turkana Parks Urges Ethiopia to halt all construction of Gibe III and to submit all assessments and requests a monitoring mission to review impacts of Gibe III this year.
IndiaKaziranga National Park Urges India to inform the World Heritage Centre and to submit EIAs for all proposed dams
Tanzania Selous Game Reserve Urges Tanzania to abandon the Stiegler's Gorge Dam and reminds Tanzania that further action on dam construction could cause the site to be listed on the danger list.
ThailandDong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex Requests all construction work on Huay Samong Dam be halted until an EIA is conducted and reviewed.