Interview: Time for a New Dialogue on Dams

Peter Bosshard
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

John Dore, Dipak Gyawali and Deborah Moore are experts on dams and the environment, and guest editors of a new issue of Water Alternatives magazine. Our policy director Peter Bosshard discussed the current state of the large dams debate with them.

Look Who’s Talking: Our Panelists

John Dore is an advisor to AusAID's Mekong Region Water & Infrastructure Unit in Laos. He previously coordinated IUCN's Water and Nature Initiative in Asia.

Dipak Gyawali is the director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. He is a member of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, and was Nepal's minister for water resources in 2002/03.

Deborah Moore was a member of the World Commission on Dams. She is currently the executive director of the Green Schools Initiative in the US, and co-chairs the board of International Rivers.

How has the global dams debate changed since the World Commission on Dams (WCD) published its report 10 years ago?

DG: The WCD process was a unique global policy exercise which brought together many divergent views and succeeded in finding common ground. In the past 10 years we have, however, experienced growing polarization. The different actors view the world in a very different manner, but they cannot wish away their differences. We need to return to the constructive engagement that the WCD stood for.

JD: There has been polarization. But when we talk with the different actors, we still find a lot of commitment to constructive dialogue. Many people continue to look for improved decision-making processes on energy and water projects.

The WCD process was launched out of a sense of deadlock in the global dam sector. Is the dam industry still in crisis, or is it enjoying a second wind?

JD: In the Mekong region, there is no visible crisis for the developers of hydropower dams. Some projects - such as the dam cascade on China's Nu River, the Nam Theun 2 and Theun Hinboun Expansion projects - are contested in the domestic, regional or international space. But most of them are moving forward. As you know, there has also been a resurgent interest to build up to 12 more dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream.

DM: We see a pendulum swinging back and forth. The WCD arose out of a period of intense conflict over dams. Changes outside the water sector have created a more favorable outlook for large dams since then. Global concern over climate change has created opportunities to promote hydropower as supposedly "green" energy. The role of development banks has changed, private investment in infrastructure has grown, and new dam financiers from China and other countries have emerged. Now the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, with big conflicts brewing over projects such as Belo Monte (Brazil), Gibe 3 (Ethiopia), and Ilisu (Turkey). And these conflicts are still over the same issues that we grappled with 10 years ago.

DG: We don't see a deadlock as much as polarization and a disinterest in constructive engagement by the hydrocracies. In countries such as China, dams are still built by the state, which means there is some space for civic pressure. In others, including Nepal and India, the main players are private investors, with state entities and civil society unable to stand up to them. But even if civil society voices are muted, the issues don't go away. In Nepal, we just saw local politicians burn down the office of an international hydropower company even after the project was sanctioned by their leaders in the central government.

The WCD process was celebrated as a new way of resolving conflicts through multi-stakeholder dialogues. Since then, governments have asserted their pre-eminent role in decision-making. Is there still a role for multi-stakeholder processes to resolve dam conflicts?

JD: Dams are very complex projects, so multi-stakeholder processes are a good way to address their issues. Multi-stakeholder processes inform decision-making processes, but they do not replace the state. The assumption that they undermine the role of the state is a misunderstanding that has triggered a lot of unnecessary opposition to such processes.

DM: There is definitely still a need for multi-stakeholder dialogues. But the question is at what level are they most effective. We have seen effective processes at the level of the river basin whereby warring parties have been able to negotiate agreements to share resources, for example on the Klamath River in the Western US. The ongoing negotiation over reparations for the communities affected by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala is an example of a promising multi-stakeholder approach on the national level. At the global level, such processes may be appropriate to generate new ideas and norms, but not to develop regulations to be implemented by governments.

JD: We have also seen creative new multi-stakeholder processes in other sectors. Examples are the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture on the international level. At the national level, we have seen initiatives such as the civil-society-led dialogue on river linking schemes in India, the WCD follow-up processes in Nepal and Africa (see page 10), and the consensus-building process on the Everglades in South Florida. We can learn from the successes, difficulties and failures of such processes.

What is the legacy of the WCD report 10 years after its publication?

DG: The WCD process has given a voice to marginalized groups and neglected issues. By bringing these issues and voices to the table, it has informed and challenged governments, and democratized the process. But some autocratic governments and their hydrocracies are still in a state of denial regarding the negative impacts of dams. Even if reluctantly, these governments have to start listening to the marginalized voices, or they will be faced with delays, impasse, and intractable political problems. In Nepal, private developers could develop small hydropower projects even while a Maoist insurgency was raging, because they did not ride roughshod over local concerns (see page 8).

DM: The value of the WCD report does not lie simply in its implementation. The report has pushed the envelope of our thinking with new ideas such as the rights-and-risk approach. These ideas for ensuring that dam-affected people do not suffer and rivers remain healthy continue to be relevant, even if we still grapple with how best to translate them into practice.

What is the main challenge for the future?

DG: Governments need to listen to the voices of the private sector and civil society, or there will be no progress. Private investors must give up their triumphalism and stop relegating governments to mere handmaidens in their projects, or they will face devastating long-term consequences to their balance sheets. Activists meanwhile need to turn from confrontation to creative protests, and learn to engage with the sane elements in the state and the markets. All need to engage in a new dialogue with each other, and should be open to modifying their own assumptions in the process. If they do this, we will end up with better projects that can be implemented without time and cost overruns.

DM: One big challenge is certainly how to respond to climate change. The dam industry tries to present hydropower as a source of clean energy, but the WCD report has shown that because of their greenhouse gas emissions and other detrimental environmental impacts, dams are not clean. One area which the WCD report neglected somewhat was the role of alternative sources of energy and water, both in a rural and urban context. I am excited by the potential for low-cost alternatives. This is a rich, fruitful field, which we need to explore further, and which could really shift the debate and the investments.

More information: 

Read commentary by these panelists and International Rivers staff in the latest Water Alternatives magazine on the WCD.