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Peter Bosshard 

Peter Bosshard was with the Berne Declaration, a Swiss advocacy group, from 1987 until March 2001. He presently advises NGOs such as the International Rivers Network, Friends of the Earth/France, or the Italian Reform the World Bank Campaign.

Large Dams and the WCD - an NGO Perspective

ICOLD and NGOs have talked about each other for a long time. They have occasionally yelled at each other. They have hardly ever talked with each other. So I very much appreciate the symposium which takes place today, and the invitation which was extended to the NGOs.

The symposium organizers are interested to learn more about the "counter-arguments" to the construction of large dams. I am happy to briefly summarize some concerns of the international NGO community relating to large dams. I will also comment on the WCD process from an NGO perspective, and will conclude by offering some thoughts on the reactions to the report which we have seen so far.

Social, environmental and economic concerns

It is a basic principle of social justice that development projects should not come at the expense of the poor, that "the people directly affected by a project should always be the first to benefit", as ICOLD's 1997 Position Paper on Dams and the Environment stipulates. Personally, I have not seen one project in which affected people were indeed better off after construction among all the large dams which I had the chance to visit. All of us have however witnessed so many cases in which the affected people lost their livelihoods, their cultural identity, their human dignity and their hope due to large dams. The WCD report confirms that affected communities have again and again gone through traumatic experiences of involuntary eviction, and have often ended in misery and marginalization. The document estimates, conservatively, that large dams have displaced 40-80 million people. They have also impoverished millions of other people, e.g. those living in downstream areas, who are often not even officially recognized as being project-affected.

Large dams have impounded an area of more than 400,000 square kilometers or roughly ten times the size of my home country Switzerland. They have thus disrupted most major river systems on the planet, and have submerged some of the world's most diverse habitats and fertile farmlands. Their impacts on the complex riverine ecosystems are not fully understood yet, and can for the most part not be mitigated. As Alessandro Palmieri from the World Bank documents in a presentation to this symposium, 300-600 new large dams would need to be built every year only to offset the sedimentation of existing reservoirs. This fact alone demonstrates that large dams are not a sustainable answer to the world's energy and water problems.

Many ICOLD members argue that consumers of electricity and water are an affected party of the large dams debate as well, and that NGOs hinder economic development by trying to stop large dams. Indeed, consumers are an affected party too, even if certainly to a lesser degree than people who must sacrifice their livelihood for a large dam. Yet is it really in the interest of consumers to invest scarce resources in large dams, among all the water and energy options which are available? The economic development impact of large dams is doubtful at best. The WCD found that dam economics have never been evaluated in a comprehensive, ex-post manner. And of all the large dams the Berne Declaration has opposed, none was a least-cost option for providing energy or water. Consumers in Brazil, China or Turkey, e.g., would be better off if scarce resources were (or had been) invested in efficiency gains or in the co-generation of power in heavy industries rather than in the Itaipu, Three Gorges or Ilisu dams. Other projects - including Bakun, Maheshwar, Manantali or Yacyreta - were and are outright economic disasters.

The WCD report confirms that dams are often not planned and built for economic reasons, but rather based on narrow, vested financial and political interests. Poor societies which have pressing water and energy needs cannot afford to squander public resources for vested interests. Instead, a comprehensive and unbiased assessment of all the needs and options as proposed by the WCD is an imperative of rational planning especially in poor societies.

ICOLD President C.V.J. Varma argues that large dams should be built not necessarily because they are a least-cost option, but because they can more easily be implemented than efficiency increases or complex demand-side management programs. I believe this argument confirms that many dams are built not because they make economic sense, but because they respond well to (and in fact, express) the unequal power relations within a society. In India the pressing electricity gap could be narrowed e.g. by increasing the efficiency of existing plants, by abolishing the power subsidies to large land owners in order to encourage an efficient use of irrigation pumps, or by building the hugely controversial Tehri dam. For many decades, it has indeed been easier to displace 100,000s of poor people for a large dam than to touch on the interests of the powerful large landowners. The growing resistance of NGOs and social movements is now changing this unequal power relation. We may hope that this trend will encourage a more democratic, balanced and comprehensive water and energy planning process as it is promoted by the WCD report.

The WCD process

The creation of the World Commission on Dams was an expression of the unresolved social, environmental and economic problems of large dams, and of the strong resistance of social movements and NGO networks against the construction of such dams. NGOs and movements such as the International Rivers Network, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Berne Declaration participated in the WCD process from the very beginning. They hoped that the establishment of empirical evidence on large dams in an independent and comprehensive process would make it more difficult to defend such projects on the grounds of self-interest or ideology. I personally participated in the WCD Forum and prepared several submissions for the Commission, and the Berne Declaration supported the WCD financially.

While most NGOs generally supported the creation and the work of the Commission, they still had some serious misgivings about the WCD process. Even if the Commission made an effort to be more participatory than any other such body, affected communities found it very difficult to bring in their experiences. The lack of time and of translations made participation difficult for anybody who was not familiar with the professional jargon of experts. Conversely, consultants who had made a carreer working for the dam industry had all the more influence on the process. They wrote most of the WCD's input papers, thereby judged the performance of their own profession, or were even paid to evaluate their own projects. It is therefore not surprising that the WCD report is not always as candid as it should be. Finally, NGOs regretted that the Commission did not examine more ongoing projects. It was prevented from looking at controversial ongoing projects by the governments of China, India and Turkey - ironically the very governments which are now the shrillest critiques of the WCD report.

In spite of such shortcomings, most NGOs have welcomed the WCD report when it was published in November 2000. Even if it is a compromise document, the report is the first independent and comprehensive review of the impacts of large dams. The WCD's knowledge base is the richest collection of comprehensive data on dams, and is based on the most representative sample of case studies which exists. The report has an added legitimacy because it was signed by all Commissioners, in spite of their extremely different backgrounds.

It is encouraging to see the widespread support which the report has already found. It was welcomed and is being used by international organizations (including UNEP and WHO), governments (including Germany and South Africa), multilateral development banks (such as ADB and AfDB), companies (such as Skanska), and also some national committees and prominent representatives of ICOLD. We already see how this support is turning the WCD guidelines into soft international law. This will not exclude the interpretation of guidelines within different national contexts.

In contrast, the reaction of the World Bank to the report has been a cause of great concern. The Bank applauded the WCD process as a model case of multi-stakeholder dialogues as long as it could get free public credit for it. Once the report was published, it chose to side with the dam-building agencies of its borrowing countries, thus supporting one single stakeholder in the conflict over large dams. The Bank has made vague and non-committing declarations in public, but has used every opportunity to discredit the report and block its implementation behind the scenes. By doing so, it has annoyed many NGOs, governments and international organizations, and has lost all credibility as a convenor of future multi-stakeholder processes. Alessandro Palmieri's assertion that "the World Bank role as honest broker (...) is and will be more and more in demand" can only be interpreted as wishful thinking.

Many representatives and members of ICOLD, including several national committees, have also rejected the recommendations of the WCD report. They have done so in public statements, and are certainly doing so in their daily business practices. Right now, we can witness a scramble of reputed international companies for contracts related to the Bakun hydroelectric power project in Malaysia. There is no demand for this project except for the greed of corrupt politicians and their business cronies. By bidding for such contracts, companies will not do a service to their public reputation. They indicate that they are not prepared to learn from past mistakes or from the WCD report, and that they rather try to profit from "business as usual" as long as they still can.

The way forward

Many companies and national agencies are still grappling with their response to the WCD report. I wish to call on these actors to formally adopt the WCD guidelines, to follow them in their business practices, and to support and participate in the follow-up processes on the national and international levels. At this symposium, many ICOLD members have expressed a strong confidence in the great benefits of large dams. TRCOLD President Mümtaz Turfan e.g. claims that in Turkey, dams are producing an agricultural and energy value ofbillion each year, or almost 40 % of the national GNP. With such confidence, it is unclear to me why TRCOLD, or the dam industry more generally, is not prepared to accept a comprehensive and balanced assessment of needs and options, a process of gaining public acceptance by making affected communities beneficiaries of their projects, or a responsibility to help overcome the unresolved problems of existing dams, as stipulated by the WCD report.

Personally, I am convinced that less and less large dams will be built in the future. As President Varma has said, "change is inevitable", or in the words of the symposium organizers, "the glamorous days of unlimited barrage construction are definitely gone". Destructive projects with hugely negative impacts on the poor and on the environment are simply not acceptable anymore in today's world society. In his presentation, Professor Asmal reminded us of the many bitter conflicts over large dams which are still going on. If industry adopts the WCD guidelines, if it engages in the follow-up process and in a dialogue with dam critics, it will at least enjoy more predictability in its operations, it will learn to early on screen out projects which would certainly end up in political conflicts and legal disputes.

Thank you for having started this process of dialogue within the ICOLD frameword, and for having invited me to address today's symposium.