Kontakt/ Impressum · 

B.N. Navalawala

Secretary to Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources, New Delhi

M. Gopalakrishnan

Chief Engineer (Designs), Central water Commission, New Delhi

Dams & Development – The Final Report of the World Commission of Dam - Impressions & Comments


A Report on ‘Dams and Development’ was released by World Commission on Dams (WCD) in London on 16th November 2000.


TheWCD’s ‘self-proclaimed’ mandate were:

1. To review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development

2. To develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards, where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.

WCD claims to have completed a comprehensive global review of performance and impact of large dams in their work based on sampling.The total number of large dams as per Commission’s own figure is 45,000(p.2 of Executive Summary).The Commission (WCD) has noted (page.3 ofExecutive Summary) that WCD knowledge base consisted of 8 case studies of large dams, overall country review of India and China and cross check survey Performa filled for 125 dams. Rest of the material consisted of public debate and submissions. The choice of the sample to derive conclusions needs a closer look as the conclusions always depend on the samples!

The WCD final document pretends to take a middle path of dams effectiveness as a tool for development. The document is full of contradictory statements which could satisfy, perhaps, everyone who looks for some conclusions that would fit to his or her own taste! It is an elaborate jugglery of carefully chosen words and expressions which blows hot and cold as to whether dams are effective to serve the purposes normally enshrined. Of course, a perceptible tilt towards an ‘anti-dam’ is seen as not a single opportunity is missed while presenting the report even where there had to be an unavoidable acknowledgement of its positive impacts, to mention the evils (!) of dams, as they see it, simultaneously.

Inferences of WCD on Dams Effectiveness:

WCD has concluded in their final report that:

  • Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable. Nothing further than this statement is reflected in the Report.
  • In too many cases an unacceptable price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities d/s, by taxpayers and by the natural environment. (social, environmental, equity).
  • Lack of equity in distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives (options).
  • By bringing to the table all those whose rights are involved and who bear the risks associated with different options for water and energy resource development, the conditions for a positive resolution of competing interests and conflicts are created.
  • Negotiating outcomes will greatly improve the development effectiveness of water and energy projects at an early stage, and by offering as a choice only these option

Some impressions that the Final report in its Chapters on ‘Technical, Financial and Economic Performance’ convey are:

  • Irrigation and flood control dams have not performed well and therefore, other options must be explored.
  • Hydropower dams may continue to be built ; however, it is elsewhere brought out that Green House Gases (GHG) emissions of Hydro Projects are as much as thermal and should be the last resort of options.
  • Large storages may be required for water supply to mega cities.

Irrigation from surface water sources like reservoirs behind dams has been subordinated in playing an active role in Agriculture and food production ;a concerted effort to project that other means like rain fed and ground water pumping could achieve the goal of food production is seen; it is endeavored that they can do away with dams and connected reservoir as storage .

Review of the inferences of WCD:

Let us look at WCD’s findings a little more closely.In the executive summary, there is a positive assertion that "Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development"; this is however, quickly followed by a few questionable figures on the share of irrigated agriculture in the country’s food production (India – 10 % as per one estimate and 30 % by another provided by CWC and world 13 %) and of hydro in energy generation (India23 % and world 19 %) .

There is little positive indication and any acknowledgement of an unambiguous nature on dams though data on good case histories like Bhakra, Nagarjunasagar etc were made available for Country wise ‘Cross check Survey’ that WCD process encompassed. The positive figures of good projects were drowned in the statistical global average indicators derived from select Projects of convenience that could perhaps suit the aim of belittling the dams’ effectiveness! There is inadequate coverage in the report about the development effectiveness of dams in regulating the world's rivers for human utilization; and wherever these have been brought out (as hard facts could hardly be sidelined) these statements are cautiously guarded. The positive contributions of dams are immediately followed by sizeable listing of ‘ignored aspects’; and the base-line is the concern on social, environmental besides equity.

Contribution of Dams to Irrigation ( review based on India Case Study):

It would not be out of place to bring out a few important aspects that the India Country Study attempted to bring forth on Irrigation aspects. In the para on ‘Final summing Up’ in the last Chapter on Some Agreed Conclusion, the Draft Report of WCD acknowledges the contribution of Large Dams as follows: (to quote)

"Large Dams have made important contributions to the development of irrigated agriculture and improved productivity and the production of food. They have also contributed hydro-electric power and enhanced domestic water supply and industrial water supply."

 However, elsewhere in the report one finds that (see Para 7.1 of Large Dams – Indian Experience )

"Contribution of Dams : Irrigation
"What has been the contribution of large dams to the country? Taking irrigation first, India’s `irrigation potential’ (i.e., the area which had the potential of being irrigated – a somewhat problematic concept) increased from 22.6 million hectares (ha) in 1951 to about 89.6 million ha by 1997, marking a fourfold growth over a period of 50 years. The production of foodgrains increased from 51 million tonnes in 1950-51 to almost 200 million tonnes by 1996-97. About two-thirds (66.7%) of this increase came from the irrigated area, which is around one-third of the cultivated area. The increase in the production of foodgrains was the result of a combination of several factors such as high-yielding varieties of seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, credit, extension, support prices, and so on, but clearly irrigation played a crucial role, and some of that irrigation came from large dams. Taking the `major/medium’ category (which accounts for 36.8% of irrigation) as a proxy for large dams, we can say that 36.8% of the increase in the production of foodgrains in the irrigated area (which in turn is two-thirds or 66.7% of the total increase), i.e., 24.5% (66.7% x 36.8%) of the total increase, came from areas irrigated by large dams. This still leaves open the question of how much of this increase can be attributed to the dams themselves. One view is that excluding the effects of the other inputs, 10% of the increase can be attributed to dams.However, others are of the view that this is an under-estimate, as irrigation is a precondition for the use of other inputs. The Central Water Commission puts the quantum of increase attributable to large dams at 30%, but the details behind that number are not available. Leaving the numbers aside, it can be stated that large dams have made a contribution to the development of irrigation and therefore to food production and food security."

The findings (based on an analysis indicated by Nirmal Sengupta in his draft for India Country report) that the contribution of large dams in increase in foodgrain production had been marginal and is around 10 %is by isolating the components of increase in the observed foodgrain production during 1950-51 to 1993-94 viz. productivity increasedue to

  1. High Yielding Variety / improved seeds,
  2. Area extension &
  3. Irrigation.

The contribution of Productivity and Irrigation is, in reality, not amenable for analysis in a compartmentalized manner as had been attempted, for reasons that the contribution of these two factors are somewhat inseparable. The production is a joint effect of irrigation on one hand and the productivity inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and improved / HYV seeds on the other hand.The productivity inputs and irrigation are supplementary to each other; in fact a mere application of other productivity inputs can hardly yield the desired increase in crop production. In effect, without assured irrigation water supply the registered production level would not have been possible! That there can be many claimants for increased productivity is the reason advocated for the exercise. However, the attempted separation of factors is illogical and lacks credibility. This has led to the absurd and ridiculous results of 10%! Unfortunately, WCD had given weight to this analysis when summarising their final report and has reflected it to argue on dams’ negligible (sic) contribution to food production through irrigated agriculture as normally projected. It is to be pointed out that:

  • The estimated contribution of irrigation on this basis works out to 84% and the contribution of large dams (Major & Medium Irrigation Projects) to 30% and not 10 % as projected. And in reality, the balance 54% contributed by minor and groundwater schemes also depend on dams, thoughin an indirect manner, as explained in the next para.
  • The contribution of hydro-power to total generation of electricity in the country is around 25%.The agricultural pump-sets using electrical energy consume nearly 30% of total generation.Thus, the groundwater exploitation is facilitated by dams and reservoirs. If we give due credit for this, then we can in general put the total contribution to agricultural productivity to be around 80% by irrigation alone.
  • The contribution of large dams is not only limited to direct irrigation but also to groundwater recharging asmany of the canal systems are unlined.Thus, the water, which is lost as seepage , etc. in irrigation systems, is available as surface return flow or ground water recharge. Thus it becomes available for use by minor schemes and Ground Water Schemes for irrigation / other usage like extraction for village watersupply etc.
  • A major increase in agricultural production is only feasible because of cultivation in rabi season also.This is possible due to major and medium projects which are having storage as the back-bone and this is feasible only by major and medium dams.
  • A recent study on Project Evaluation of existing schemes indicate that ‘Irrigation’ is the key factor in generating a sustained employment growth; the study indicates that the command areas and the adjunct rainfed agricultural areas show a perceptible positive trend in many aspects like education, health care etc besides even population control , to mention a few.The impact on associated activities like fisheries and poultry, cattle rearing and other activities, based on actual statistics prove the advantage of opening irrigated agricultural opportunity to the farmers to achieve an overall welfare to the area as a whole.

Contribution of Dams to Flood Control :

As per WCD Report, the India case Study portrays the potential for conflict between flood control objectives for operation of the reservoir (where storage space in the reservoir is required) and hydropower and irrigation (where it is desirable to store as much water as possible). According to them, most of the complaints about dams aggravating floods down stream stem from this situation. The case study goes on to document the lack of co-ordination or real time information exchange between the upstream Tenughat reservoir and the operation agencies of the down stream Damodar Valley Corporation, which put the down stream river reach and reservoirs at risk This is a case of non-unified control under a single Agency as Tenughat is controlled by State Government Irrigation Department and the system of Damodar by DVC.Due to difficulties in procurement of land in the flood cushion area, the flood storage of Tenughat is restricted.Tenughat is a small dam and flood provision is not provided in the project plan. A liaison between Tenughat authorities and DVC authorities exists and Tenughat authorities do inform about releases from Tenughat well in advance on wireless. A flood cushion of 1.51 million acre-feet exists in DVC dams and these dams have been effective in providing flood peak reduction from about 0.65 million cusecs to almost 0.1million cusecs, well with in the channel capacity.Second stage of providing flood relief upto 1 million cusecs could not be initiated due to various reasons.Effective flood regulation plans upto 1 million cusecs exists. The real problem lies with the encroached bed plains for which effective evacuation system works.The remark on Tenughat is not correct. It is a typical case where also an example is chosen to drive home WCD’s negative aim. The effectiveness of dams in avhieving flood control with successful examples of other DVC reservoirs, Ukai, Bhakra and Beas , Hirakud etc are not properly brought out.

Hydro Power and Green House Gases (GHG emission):

While we see an elaborate effort to consider Green house Gases emission due to reservoirs in arid areas, WCD had no say as to what the so called Options other than Dams would have really provided but for the large dams! No denial that apart from large dams there are other contributors for water supply, power generation and food production. A number of the so-called alternatives advanced by dam opponents are put forward without critique. But what are their share vis a vis the need for a country with a population in excess of 1 billion (and a further unchecked rise) is not well addressed!

Hydro power generation has a major advantage over fossil fuel, such as avoiding emission of harmful gases and heavy metals; however, citing examples of regions (where reservoirs are permitted to submerge the forest / trees in submergence areas) carbon accounting is done and emission of Green House gases had been indicated. In India the reservoirs are cleared of trees etc which come under submergence as it has a great economic value and thus the situation is totally different as compared to Amazon!

No attempt was made to measure the small-scale, local solutions against the enormous growth in demand in developing countries.Over-optimistic views of the future economics of largely untested technologies, as advanced by the WCD can beof interest to those countries who are not short of their needs and have enough resources to experiment, irrespective of the results of such exercises.

Need for Dams in Indian Context:

Despite the clear-cut proof of success of Large Dams in Indian context (such as Bhakra & Beas etc) which were made available to WCD Secretariat in time for Cross Check Survey and as comment on India Country Study draft report,WCD failed to project the above picture either in India Country Report or their final report, in a proper perspective. Similarly, the Indian Government’s comment pointed out that

  • all options are required in Indian context,
  • each option has its own ‘site specific’ applicability,
  • the future vision scenario on demands would call upon harnessing all options as available(small and big, Ground water and surface water, demand side management as well as supply side deficit needs, and last but not the least
  • they are not mutually contradictory but supplementary.
  • large Dams were required given the fact that the development needs are still to be gapped and wasting water flowing down to sea as surplus.
  • The rainfall in India occurs in a limited number of days in the monsoon; in less than 100 hours, in most of the areas, the entire annual rainfall occurs just in a few spells. Naturally the river flow is intermittent and varies almost hundred times and more in several cases. Only the surplus water is stored as per needs and evened out for various purposes; this includes minimum flow needs for downstream water quality an preserving ecology.

WCD’s final report / document has however, unfortunately, hesitated to come out with the indisputable fact that dams are the only solution to water problems in many cases; especially where a river drains most of its flows to the sea in the form of floods just in a few days.In India as in many other similar areas of the world, there exists a great deal of diversities in water availability and climatic conditions besides soil and land constraints.

WCD was aware of the future requirements based on ‘Vision Documents’ which kept in view the population projections and needs by 2025 and 2050. A good document can’t afford to close its eyes when the requirements of the most populous country like India where approximately one billion people strive to exist on a self reliant basis. India needs food security. Be it water supply for human or animal needs or agriculture, ecology or maintenance of low flows or river regime, one can’t achieve much without storage and all other ‘options’ such as rain water harvesting, catchment check dams, recharging etc can only be a supplementary solution. They are not an alternative or substitutive solution(s).Large and growing populations in such areas cannot possibly be supported without large-scale surface storage. WCD’s Report should have acknowledged the need for more dams in an unequivocal manner for countries like India!

The WCD’s final report has made no objective and scientific assessment of the contribution of the alternatives to Dams keeping in view the projected needs. This is a great lacuna in the entire exercise. This is surprising as collection of data based on Cross Check Survey was meant to provide them with this vital data, despite the limited statistical base. The exercise has apparently proceeded on a motivated goal and in this process, any thing that which does not reinforce the view point of is relegated in status. The Commission’s approach to creation of so called Knowledge Base looks as an able andclever example of the game of inverse research, where "facts are collected to prove the preconceived hypothesis"

Social & Environmental aspects:

WCD’s final report has attempted to project that dams in the past has actually caused more harm than good when one looks at it from Social and Environmental angle. This is not a real situation.It is wrong to conclude that Social and Environmental issues took a back seat in the past in comparison to economic and financial angles. These were addressed independently by the representatives of the elected Parliament in a country like India and ‘the overall common good’ prevailed while the decisions with regard to water resources development were taken fully keeping in view social and equity aspects. Enough safeguards were planted in the process over a period of time as required from environmental considerations as it was evolving during the past few decades.

In the report the WCD had brought out that India is one of the largest dam builders in the world besides China; However the interest of these Nations (besides similarly placed other developing nations like Turkey etc) should have been the foremost consideration when Guidelines for future Projects are attempted! This has not been so! The WCD recommendation goes back to such options (wind energy, solar energy, tidal power etc) which cannot meet the goal of satisfying the vast needs for a teeming population! Also decommissioning of dams and keeping that as one of the consideration even from the day one formulates a proposal! Perhaps such a luxury a rich and developed Nation could think of but not a developing and a poor nation which strives to stand on its legs!


  • Are there really more efficient alternatives to Dams and Could it be that one could have avoided Dam building altogether and reaped the same extent of benefits?

WCD Report declares that alternatives to Dams exist. The report picks up the question of available options as its foremost thrust area and elaborates an ambiguous criteria that before launching any dam Project all these alternatives should be proven as inferior; the suggested criteria are vague and are almost impossible to be carried through in a reasonable time frame before formulating a single Project. After-all, it is the part of the process of National Planning which thereafter allocates for Sectoral Priorities. These include the entire gamut of all contributing sources which are site specific like (for example, rain harvesting, small tanks and irrigation, wind or solar energy generation, thermal , nuclear or Gas energy generation, flood management through flood plain legislation, dyke for flood protection utilising available idle labour though specific Schemes like Rojgar Yojana in India which helps to eradicate poverty at village level by gainful employment etc).

The elected Governments have an onus to perform in a time bound manner; all schemes of relevance are studied and considered and the elected representatives do keep in their mind all that is of relevance for their individual constituencies.

Asking for anintellectual and rigorous exercise to evolve a Project to meet the overall needs with the proviso that the Project affected population can veto the development would hardly be acceptable to people at large as it will definitely in most of the situations stall a viable dam Project. This approach totally ignores the loss that the countries overall population would suffer due to lack of undertaking viable schemes because of the desire of some people who consider that it affects their property or native lands. The stalemate couldbe overcome by successive negotiation and persuasion but Project should proceed.

Thus, WCD’s efforts to push in criteria of a complex nature or bring in a gamut of so called ‘necessary conditions’ for the acceptance of a Project for implementation in water sector would make the development almost impossible. And why Water Resources Project alone in isolation? Is there a fear that self sufficiency of countries like India and China would weaken the dictating power of the Rich Nations that have a say in funding through Donor Agencies? The avowed multi-faceted ‘compliant Project Report’ which would satisfy the Guidelines that brings stakeholders to the fore (in which process the PAP’svirtual okaying is sought to be made a mandatory requirement) has to be carefully reviewed as this would be virtual unreality!

  • Is it that past decisions of elected and constitutionally ‘legitimate’ Parliamentary democracy is biased?

The WCD has portrayed tacitly by its assertions on past planning practices that the policies of Governments were lacking good will to the affected population as it was not involving stakeholders in the decision making processes. WCD works hard to prove that in the past, the selection of dams were meant to serve only the vested interests of a few rich; and it caused dents with regard to equity and deprived the rights of PAP as they were not forming part of the Planning processes. And the golden solution would be to involve them in decision making process and in case they veto, such Projects should never be taken up. The flaw in the outlook is non recognition of the entire population which are also having stakes in the Project development as it affects their day to day living as water and power are their prime needs! Is it not then the decision of an elected Legislature in a democracy is meant to serve this decision making process. That only the affected population (more precisely the ones in submergence areas are the Stake-holders) are to be involved in saying an unequivocal yes for Project construction is a hard requirement.Stakeholders’ interest are not ignored in the current processes in a democracy. Why should we forget that a Water Resources Project serves a larger interest and the goals set by a Nation with regard to development targets? Is there any prudential logic that would indicate that a Nation should waste its available water resources without harnessing to sea and be dependant on food and fibers from outside? Is it contributing to its overall welfare though satisfy certain restricted interests? What is human right and aren’t we mixing up Property Rights with Human interests and making a hue and cry?

The WCD presents the unsupported figure of 40 to 80 million people displaced by dams during the past century.The India Case study indicates the people displaced in India as 38 million which is about 600% of the official figure. The defensive argument advanced for such high projections are that most of the figures on affected population are unreliable and the report errs on safer(?) side. Leaving aside the absurdity of such figures of people displaced, let us see the other side. If a Nation could well organise and resettle 38 million people to benefit its 1000 million people is it not for the overall good? This means that for each person negatively impacted by dams, 30 other people benefit from the food, electricity, water and flood control provided by dams.In effect, the WCD report focuses on hardly 6.25 million people who were resettled by Various Project Agencies and Authorities in India under Water Resources Development (so called ‘negatively affected population’) relegating the fact that 1000 million people are perpetually getting benefited from dams. It ignores the benefits to the majority of the people in the most glaring style.

WCD’s Recommendations

The WCD put forward a decision process that asks for formal multi-step negotiations between all stake holders.The steps include recognizing the needs, choosing the options to satisfy those needs, and finally selecting the design, construction and exploitation parameters of the selected option, only if it is a dam.Populations that might be affected by a proposed dam, and especially indigenous people, must at the end demonstrate through written contracts with developers "their acceptance of key decisions."

The entire negotiation process as proposed is complicated and cumbersome; it is as though that there was no system in existence in the past in a any democratic society! There can be a public hearing process which adequately address the concerns of all concerned. and this stands incorporated before any land is acquired for development in India; this had been made mandatory since the past few years. This automatically takes care of the mediation steps, review by expert panels. All information about the potential impact on the ecosystem and the population by any new development projects, will, in fact, be brought out.

If the WCD process as suggested is considered, an issue that would arise would be as to how does direct consultations take place when the number of people affected both ways i.e.- by implementing a project or by non implementing a project runs into hundreds of thousands. Further, the complicated recommendation to revisit the operational parameters of a constructed dam with all stakeholder participation at the end of each five year period by the WCD is also something of an extra-ordinary nature.The risk to project development by dam owners and financial institutions would hardly be assessable in any credible manner and this will be creating additional delays.


  • Poverty is the worst polluter! All Nations are to be brought to a level of parity if Global Guidelines are to be evolved as proposed by WCD.

In countries like India, it is the population pressure and the resulting stress on the environment which has to be addressed primarily and the suggestions of WCD had totally ignored the future needs as evolved by different expert Agencies and how best to cope it up. There is little doubt that the world is water short and the shortage will grow.The need for structural solutions, including more dams, is undeniable because there are no other solutions that can singularly cover the needs adequately.It would be futile to equate all the Nations at par and developed as well as under-developed Nations in a bracketed manner and provide any Guidelines. The procedures for development are specific to each country.Each country should consider its own prevailing conditions, administrative and political systems as available, emerging participation by peoples’ Agencies, peculiar traditions if any, laws and last but not the least, its needs keeping in view the projected demands.The WCD recommendations are not universally applicable and should not be considered as such by anyone, including funding institutions.

‘Think global but see local’ is the catch word of WCD’s home page! But we see that a global evaluation process with regard to the availability of water in the world's different regions had not brought out the clear message that for the minimum amount of water needed to support the particular region's population as in India, there still exists a large need to look into Dams as an essential option. But we understand the dilemma of WCD as even with a half heartedacknowledgement of the dams effectiveness by WCD which worked hard to evolve a consensus report, one of its Commissioners with a strong commitment to NO Dams, had provided a tail piece conveying the need for further fight to finish to STOP DAMS!

WCD’s obsessive concern for preserving the rights of affected local people makes it distrust the entire public set up- even the legal frame-work of the country to which these people belong.In its anxiety to champion their cause, the Commission has advocated International legal recourse!No self respecting nation would of course accept such officious advise of supra national adjudication in the matter affecting its own people.Such a recommendation itself smacks of an altitude of looking down upon the socio-politicalinstitutions of developing countries!

  • Increased Responsibility of the International Bodies like ICOLD and Water Related Agencies

With the dissemination of the report of WCD, the responsibility of the above international agencies associated with dams has increased many folds.Reactions of country members are to be analysed in depth.WCD examined only the disputing aspects of the dams.General guidelines put forth by the WCD are yet to be merged into the respective guidelines/design criteria of the nation dam building industry. The disputable aspects as well as the pro-developmental aspects should be incorporated into the WCD guidelines/criteria.This process may change the entire strategy of the developmental guidelines and resulting criteria.


  1. World Commission on Dams : Dams and Development2000Earth Scan PublishersU.K
  2. World Commission on Dams: Draft India Country ReportAug 2000
  3. Comments (Unpublished) on India Country Report by Ministry of Water Resources / Central Water CommissionGovernment of India April 2000
  4. Paper presented by Mr.M.Gopalakrishnan in the Conference on Water Resources Development – Irrigation & Hydropower 1-2 February 2001 New Delhi organised jointly by Indian Committee on International Hydropower Association, Council of Power Utilities.
  5. Speech by Shri B.N.Navalawala in the Proceedingsdodo