Dams and the Global Water Divide

Statement by Peter Bosshard, Policy Director, International Rivers

Press conference: March 20, 2009. See here for details.

We are missing my two colleagues Payal Parekh and Ann-Kathrin Schneider today, who were both deported from Turkey for peacefully displaying a banner at the opening ceremony. The World Water Council has remained silent on this repression of free speech on its premises. The silence confirms that the Forum is a trade fair of corporate interests, and not the open, democratic space that the Council pretends it is.

Throughout the Forum, we have once again heard calls for building more dams. We have often heard such calls from large dam building companies in the name of the poor -- the poor who have no voice to speak for themselves at this event.

The propaganda of interest groups disregards the track record of large dams, as evidenced by the Knowledge Base of the independent World Commission on Dams and our partner groups around the world. Dams are a risky business for people and the planet. They have displaced 40-80 million people globally, and impoverished millions more. Dams and other infrastructure have also turned freshwater into the ecosystem which is most threatened by species extinction. And on average, large hydro dams cost at least 50 percent more than projected. If built in the tropics, reservoirs can be significant emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And if built in seismically active regions -- as many of them are -- reservoirs can cause massive earthquakes.

At this Forum and at other opportunities, we have heard that dam builders have learned the lessons from their past mistakes, and are now developing projects following best social and environmental practice. Too often, the reality on the ground is different. From China's great rivers to the Mekong and the Amazon basins, we continue to see projects which flout environmental laws and guidelines, and will have devastating impacts on the environment. From Laos to India, Turkey and Ethiopia, we continue to see projects that will impoverish large, often indigenous population groups.

For all this social, environmental and economic cost, large dams don't have a good track record of supplying water and energy services to the poor. The rural poor -- the epicenter of global poverty -- tend to live far away from centralized water supply, irrigation and electrical grid systems.

Smarter, softer water and energy solutions than large dams are often available. Supporting decentralized rainwater harvesting structures, improving soil productivity on rainfed lands, small-scale irrigation, and rural electrification based on small dams and other renewable technologies will do more to reduce poverty than spending billions of dollars on large dams -- and at lower cost.

For such alternatives to prevail, a balanced assessment of all options and an open, democratic planning process are required. The World Water Forum is dominated by corporate interests, and does not provide a space for such an open, balanced debate. It has outlived its usefulness.

Media contacts: 

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director, +90531 725 94 38 (in Istanbul)

Antonia Juhasz, Media Consultant, +1 415 846 5447 (in California) media@internationalrivers.org