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Prof. Dr.-Ing. Harro Bode and Prof. Dr.-Ing. Peter Rissler

Ruhrverband, Essen (Germany)

German Experience with Social and Environmental Issues related to Dams

Germany is among the countries where the building of dams has a very long tradition. The comments on the WCD final report ought to be considered under this aspect and the experiences gained here. The report has been compiled with best intention but the facts have often been insufficiently researched or presented and are not practical enough for direct implementation. In addition there is a fear that it will obstruct rather than promote projects in the short and medium terms.


1. Introduction

The final report of the World Commision on Dams (WCD) [1] was published in November 2000. It claims to present a new framework for decision-making involved in dam projects.

On the occasion of the symposium "Benefits and concerns about dams" in Dresden, the members of the German Dam Committee, that is those who plan, build, operate or benefit from dams in Germany, have the opportunity for the first time to discuss the WCD report with the representatives of ICOLD and WCD. Like others, we do this from the point of view of our home country, that is the German view.

2. Experiences with dam projects in Germany

2.1 Historical development

There are approximately 350 dams in Germany that meet the ICOLD criteria. The first of these dams was constructed around 1900. They were initially required in order to provide adequate energy for the industry in the low mountain ranges even in dry summers. This was soon followed by regional drinking water supply systems, which also had to be supported by dams.

An example of this is the situation in the Ruhr catchment area. There, in the concentrated industrial region the production of coal and steel had experienced explosive growth. The population grew accordingly. Sixty-eight inhabitants per square kilometre lived in the Ruhr region in 1810; in 1900 the figure was 538 and 1,484 in 1970. The industry and the inhabitants required water. This was only available from the river Ruhr, 116 million m3/a in 1896, already 275 million m3/a in 1909 and 315 million m3/a by 1911.

The Ruhr is a small river. An annual average of 80 m3/s flows through the mouth cross-section but only 4 m3/s during extreme drought. However, the waterworks required 15 to 20 m3/s during peak times on such days. This could only be acomplished by dams. As a consequence now the Ruhr association owns 8 reservoirs with a total capacity of 465 million m3. These reservoirs replenish the water withdrawn from the Ruhr and its catchment area by the 47 waterworks but which they do not return. These 8 reservoirs constitute the largest continuously and holistically managed dam system in Germany and secure the water supply of 5 million people.

In its report WCD presents the opinion "Large dams built for municipal and industrial water supply have generally fallen short of intended targets…". This statement is - if not extremely wrong but then - not at all correct as far as the dams in the catchment area of the Ruhr are concerned and also with regard to all other German dams serving the direct or indirect drinking water supply. In the supply area from the Ruhr, in the region "Ruhrgebiet", the safe and secure supply with drinking water for 2 and later even for 5 million people has been possible for 100 years only by means of dams. No alternatives have been identified. The same applies also to Saxony, Thuringia and parts of Lower Saxony and Bavaria. Almost every fifth inhabitant in Germany drinks water made available through dams, and for which no other source is available (at least not for reasonable costs!)

2.2 Social aspects

People had - of course - to be resettled for the construction of dams, also in Germany. There were for instance 800 people in 1913 during the construction of our Möhne dam, 2,500 around 1960 during the construction of our Bigge dam. The resettlements were quite successful. But in the eighties, the Ruhr Reservoir Association attempted to resettle 400 inhabitants of the village of Brunskappel for the Neger dam – without success.

An analysis of these three cases shows to what major extent the specific social situation, the specific needs and the general mood of the society have influenced this development from acceptance to rejection.

In 1913, before World War I, Germany was a constitutional monarchy. The Möhne dam had been planned by the Ruhr River Association, formerly the Ruhr Reservoir Association and was approved by the government in order to overcome the unquestionable deficiencies in the water supply. Planning and approval took two years, the construction seven years. None of the people living in the Möhne valley would have even remotely attempted to question the project in general and in open public. Those citizens facing resettlement were compensated and there are no records about major rejection. Contemporary press reports regret the need for the resettlement [2], but they do not mention anything about organised resistance.

The next case is the Bigge dam. Prior to the completion of this dam in 1965 there were still frequent water shortages in the Ruhr region. Eighty thousand people became ill in 1959 because large portions of the Ruhr water were almost recycled and had to be utilised several times [3]. The Bigge dam was unquestionable necessary in order to overcome these serious deficiencies of the system. In 1956 the parliament of North Rhine Westphalia passed a law to finance the construction of the dam. In doing so – implicitly and without mentioning it – the parliament also voted on the resettlement of 2,500 people. Similar to the situation at the Möhne dam – 50 years previously – again no wide public discussion of the necessity of the Bigge project took place. But there were many arguments on how the resettlement should be done and what the amount of compensation should be.

How was the material issue solved in this case? The Ruhr Reservoir Association established the infrastructure for three new townships in advance and close to the reservoir so that the people concerned and affected would be able to find new homes. The building substance and the commercial businesses to be relocated were assessed and a separate finance concept was worked out for each individual case, including interest-free loans. Since the entire process took over almost 10 years, there was sufficient time to optimise private interests. The whole project was a big success!

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Fig. 1 Plan of reservoir, old and new village

Now to the third case, the unsuccessful one! At the beginning of the eighties the Ruhr Reservoir Association intended to build a ninth dam, the Neger dam. It was meant to increase the capacity of the existing dam system by 9% due to growing demand. For this purpose the village of Brunskappel of 400 inhabitants was going to be relocated [4]. Our association had offered to the village to re-establish the entire infrastructure (including the reconstruction of the church to the original state and the transfer of the dead) at a location on the shore preferred by the inhabitants. According to a survey carried out by the political community itself the favoured location was only 800 m away from the old village and situated 50 m higher.

From an early stage on the village was already divided into those who rejected the construction of the dam but, in the interest of their own future, became involved in the planning (56% according to the secret ballot survey) and the others who strictly and increasingly radically, categorically fought the project and refused any involvement in regulating their own interests (27%). This second group had given itself the name "Environmental protection citizen initiative", but had not other interests apart from sheer resistance to the dam project.

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Fig. 2 Model of the new village

The Ruhr Reservoir Association intended to compensate those directly affected by the project in the same way as it was done previously for the Bigge dam. An urban construction design competition for the new village was conducted during the course of the preparatory phase. Working groups were also established in which the inhabitants willing to co-operate were able to develop their ideas of their future home together with architects. These well-received discussions also aimed at outlining the specific financial framework and solving personal financing problems.

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Fig. 3House models

The plan for the construction of the Neger dam was submitted for approval in 1976; it was then approved by the government in 1981. Sixty of those involved from the village took the case to court an instituted proceeding against the approval but lost in 1982. Of this group, 30 persons appealed to a higher regional administrative court. The latter overruled the approval in June 1984. That was the end. The project has been on ice ever since.

Today, 15 years later, several lessons can be learned from these three cases and 5 conclusions can be derived:

  1. The entirely different course of the project in the eighties compared to the earlier ones can be explained at least partly by the changes which happened in the meantime in the German society. Directly affected citizens had learnt to organise themselves in groups and to oppose to projects with concentrated resistance. Sometimes this was less the repulsion of personal disadvantages but the fundamental rejection of anything new - sort of a conservative attitude. Meanwhile this experience can be generalised. Not only dam projects but also many other large projects were and still are affected by this in Germany.
  2. Added to this, in the case of the Neger dam, there were supporters from the outside of the village. People, who were not materially affected themselves but, who became involved out of general considerations (support for the presumably underdog village inhabitant and/or ecological motivation). This group of persons did not seek a fair compensation of interests but wanted to see the project fall and fail. Again, almost every large construction project meanwhile faces such fundamental opponents from the outside nowadays in Germany. Their behaviour is highly heterogeneous. The majority certainly operates within legal boundaries. However, there is a violent minority, which does not stop short of criminal acts either. The existence of such a group of people, which enjoys much public interest, apparently lies in the nature of a pluralistic society.
  3. Those involved, who wish to maintain the existing situation, generally cannot be convinced through mediation and arbitration. This is particularly true of fundamental opponents mainly from the outside of the project. For this reason we do not believe that the "successful mediation and/or arbitration" propagated by WCD has much chance of success in practice in cases like the one of Neger dam.
  4. It is consequently our opinion that the procedure proposed by WCD is not, or perhaps, not yet suitable for practice. The Ruhr Reservoir Association already approached the Neger dam project in a manner, which, even then, included major components of the WCD recommendations. The project nevertheless failed due to the resistance of those who would have been affected and of their alleiance. With all efforts for fair treatment of those being affected it appears therefore particularly necessary to find ways of overcoming conservative and fundamental rejection (by legal means!).
  5. The approval procedure of the Neger dam project took 5 years, the subsequent administrative court proceedings 3 years. Similar periods will have to be expected in the implementation of the WCD recommendations, provided they are further developed for practical application. This is a long period of insecurity for the development of a country, but also for investors and financial backers. Ultimately those intended to benefit from such a project will suffer most from a delay. Often these are persons belonging to the lower income group of the population.

2.3 Ecological questions

2.3.1 Landscaping

Long before the term "ecology" was incorporated in the common Germanl vocabulary and before the environmental law was codified in this country, the constructors of dams in Germany put a lot of emphasis to appropriately incorporating the dam and reservoir structures into the landscape. A commemorative publication on the opening of the Bigge dam - the second project - reads: "This is more than just sowing a lawn, it is rather to preserve and even further develop a landscape, a biotope." This was not written in the year 2000, but in 1965 [5].

It always was and still is the philosophy of the German reservoir owners to avoid the construction of houses and other buildings close to the reservoirs shores. In this way it was possible - also in the case of the Bigge dam - to shape and maintain shores as natural as possible and to fit them into the landscape. The compositions of the natural forests and of the specific surroundings were used as a base for selecting the types of trees and shrubs for new planting.

In the area covered by the reservoir, all buildings were demolished and every tree, every shrub removed. Even the roots were cleared.

2.3.2 Nature and bird sanctuaries

Around many German reservoirs certain areas (water and adjoining land areas) enjoy a special status of protection. In this way they have already provided undisturbed biotopes for fauna and - wild life, especially - bird life. Particularly suitable for this are the primary dam basins (at the inflow area of reservoirs) sealed off by primary dams and normally located away from traffic. With their constantly even water level, they offer the preconditions for the development of natural shore and underwater vegetation.

A hillock 30 ha in size was turned into an artificial island in the Bigge dam by digging off an adfoining saddle. This island, which has long been declared a nature protection area, has been left to its own devices for 35 years. No human being ever enters the island. Consequently it is abailable for the entirely unrestricted natural development of deer and smaller game.

A large nature sanctuary was also established at the Möhne reservoir decades ago, the largest sanctuary of North Rhine Westphalia. Approximately 30% of the overall surface area of this reservoir, more than 300 ha, was taken away from being utilised for any water sport. This location has meanwhile made a name for itself among ornithologists as a bird resting place of European significance.

2.3.3 Limnology

Most German dams serve wholly or partly for the water supply. With this background they are consequently subject to continuous limnological monitoring. However, human settlements and intensive agriculture with potentially negative consequences for the quality of the dam water exist almost everywhere in the catchment area in our densely populated country. Of course, this is not a new problem. Domestic and industrial waste water has been treated for decades, in many cases pipes were built to even bypass the reservoirs. Added to this in the last decade has been the successful co-operation between water management and agriculture with the result that the effect of animal farming on reservoir water is also being minimised.

3. Evaluation of the WCD final report from the German view of practitioners

The report mentions many aspects of "the" introduction of new steps, which have been practised in Germany for a considerable time. Germany has a sophisticated planning law and a very detailed water law. We have regulations as to how citizens can be involved in large projects and we check - as part of the environmental compatibility examination - during every step of planning whether there are alternatives. Courts ensure that citizens receive justice.

Therefore, this is obvious, from the German point of view the WCD report was not a necessity -at least not for Germany. On the contrary, it supplies the militant opponents - not only in Germany but worldwide - who are resistant to convincing and objective argumentation, and who form at least a part of the opposition to large projects, with citeable quotations from an apparently authorised source. It seems sort of naive if one does not take this into account.

As far as other countries are concerned their representatives will articulate themselves. However, we are of the opinion - based on our experiences - that the WCD report is well-intentioned but in large parts unbalanced, especially where it concerns the evaluation of existing dams. Many of its recommendations are not practical enough to promote subjective discussion for real projects. We fear that even, where water storage is important for human survival, it will rather delay such projects.

It would be wrong and obstruct the development for improved living conditions in many countries if the WCD report would now be used as a blue print or rigid regulatory works or if it would be demanded as such on the part of the financial backers.

The recommendations in our opinion should first be tested in a pilot project before becoming established (reality check!). This would be a task in which the World Bank, selected donor countries and a progressive project operator would sponsor benefits for all with the maximum possible involvement of the public. Such a project should be observed by the worldwide stakeholder community. At the end either the practicability or the need of corrections will become obvious.

4. Summary

This essay assesses some of the recommendations of the WCD final report "Dams and development" from the view of the dams that exist in Germany and relating to these findings.

Accordingly the following statements and recommendations can be made:

1. Not only the people who could materially suffer disadvantages as a result of the contruction would have to be considered for large projects, that is also for dam projects. Just as important for the progress of a project are those who, out of fundamental considerations, reject any innovation (conservatism) or who develop fundamental opposition with the objective of bringing a project to its knees.

2. The WCD report furnishes these groups with apparently citeable quotations, which may make discussions orientated on the subject difficult in practice.

3. Under the aspect of such groups, who are fundamentally opposed to the construction of dams, the recommendations of the WCD appear inadequately suited for practical use.

4. The recommendations would first have to be tested on a pilot project before being specified for practical use. Everybode would benefit from this.

It is possible that the report was written to help reasonable and good projects to move forward. There are serious doubts whether the report is able to fulfill such big expectations. This might be due to the fact that the ones who need the water were not equally involved in writing the report and in taking part in the proposed procedures of mediation etc.

All involved parties should try to transform the discussion being initiated by the report into a success which means in the end to bring sufficient water to humans. This - of course - should be done in a way which minimizes harmful effects for nature and population which has to move away.


[1] World Commission on Dams; Dams and Development - A New Framework for Decision-Making, Nov. 2000

[2] Westfälische Tageszeitung dated 02.07.1907

[3] Trüb, C. P., Althaus, H., Posch, J.: Abakterielle Gastroenteritis-Epidemie und Trockenwetterperiode im Ruhrwasserversorgungsgebiet Spätherbst und Winter 1959/60 im Lande Nordrhein-Westfalen. Aus der Gesundheitsabteilung des Innenministers des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen und dem Hygiene-Institut des Ruhrgebiets
A bactereial gastroenteritis epidemic and drought period in the Ruhr water supply area late autumn and winter 1959/60 in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. From the Health Department of the Minister of the Interior of the land of North Rhine Westphalia and the Hygiene Institue of the Ruhrgebiet

[4] Schmittel, W: Öffentlichkeitsbeteiligung im Rahmen eines wasserrechtlichen Planfeststellungsverfahrens - Der Fall Negertalsperre, Speyerer Forschungsberichte 92, 2. Auflage, 1991
Involvement of the public as part of a plan establishment procedure with regard to water law - the case of the Neger dam, Speyer research reports 92, 2nd edition, 1991

[5] Ruhr Reservoir Association: The Bigge dam - inauguration and damming 1965