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Professor Kader Asmal

Chair, World Commission on Dams, South African Minister of Education

From Politicians to Craftsmen: How ICOLD can use the WCD’s Dams & Development as a pragmatic tool.


Mr Chairman, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests. On behalf of all former Commissioners, thank you for your organising this Symposium. You have drawn together a diverse assembly of expertise to discuss a pressing issue that is too delicate to approach carelessly…and too important to ignore. At WCD I faced a similar challenge of striking the appropriate mix of ‘advocates’ and ‘opponents,’ for balanced yet dynamic debate. You have succeeded. Though, after reading the line-up of today’s speakers, I wrote remarks under the mistaken assumption that today’s agenda was: "Benefits and Concerns about, ahem, the World Commission on Dams."

Seriously, when my former staff and colleagues learned I had been invited here, many noted ICOLD’s overall criticism of Dams and Development, and seemed to feel I would be "entering the lion’s den." Some urged me to be aggressive and assertive, and to vociferously defend our Report at all costs. A few noted the distinctions and range of reactions among ICOLD national committees – from support to rejection – and whispered "go, divide and conquer." Others suggested I drive the Report’s key messages home and recite key verses verbatim, like a catechism, until you are indoctrinated that it is in your self interest to adopt and embrace the Report in your professional and institutional lives.

Approach: Political Pragmatism

I would not attempt such blunt or Machiavellian tactics before a gathering of your calibre. The Report speaks for itself; it needs no defence. Its words cannot be forced upon a sceptical mind, only made available to those who seek it out willingly on their own. Your words, along with your presence, make one thing manifest. Despite sharp criticism and even rejection of parts of the Report by individual ICOLD members and national chapters, each of you recognises that the status quo must change, and the WCD Report, despite any perceived imperfections, may be the last, if not best, catalyst to bring about progress through multi-stakeholder processes. To that end, I am not here as a bible salesman to preach ideas, nor as a preacher who sells ideals. I am simply a realistic politician, one who practices the art of the possible. Political pragmatism guided me on the Commission. A pragmatist I stand before you today.

I don’t know if each of you have read WCD’s Report from start to finish. I have, however, read your official National Committee reactions to it. All twenty-seven of them. In their entirety. It came to roughly a third the length of Dams and Development, and, I promise you, some of your chapters read as painful to me as parts of the WCD Report may have read to you! So perhaps we’re even. In any case, with your knowledge and experience you are helping to guide the way, and I am grateful for your engagement.

Yet now let us take up the mantle together. The former Commissioners, and newly established Dams and Development Unit, would rather not let advocacy groups within a country use your reactions as a "weapon" that would needlessly cut short the Report’s dissemination or appropriate use there. Nor, I suspect, would you want to let advocacy groups use the WCD Report as a "weapon" that would needlessly halt or bog down development in nations where it is most needed. The answer to us both, as advocated in Chapter 10, involves your taking the lead in building on both the WCD Report, and others building on your reactions, through a multi-stakeholder discussion. This has occurred, in two cases I know of, perhaps more, in a SANCOLD meeting two months ago in Pretoria, and ZIMCOLD meeting in Harare.

How do we start? Let us engage on the specifics. One of your recurring criticism of the Report is that Part I, the Global Review, paints too "bleak" a picture of large dams in the past, and that Part II, the Way Forward, would slow, bog down, even shackle development of water and energy resources.

As promised, I won’t try to sell or defend to you either the findings or the recommendations of the Report. I will say the Commission continues to stand by them more solidly than ever. Why? As Nelson Mandela said at the launch, the challenge facing all of us does not arise from the Commission, which no longer exists. Nor does it arise from the Report, which is, after all, only ink on paper. The challenge comes from the world to which we must return.

Let me quickly paint a realistic picture of that world, focusing on large dam projects attempted, proposed or underway in the present – projects that the WCD did not attempt to even look at due to its tightly focused mandate.

Name a major river. Name a country. No matter how poor, no matter how badly its people need water, food and electricity, you will find dams in the news. And it is seldom a pretty picture for either dams or for those in whose name dams are built. One may not like, or wish to acknowledge this, but there is no hiding that this is the reality of governance in the 21st century, and will only grow in proportion to rights.

In Namibia, Epupa Dam is held up by global concern about displacement of the Himba tribal peoples. Uganda’s upper Nile project at Bujagali Falls awaits a delayed decision from the World Bank. In June, The Japanese government has suspended

funds to a controversial hydroelectric power project in Western Kenya which is still in the first phase of construction. In my country, on a river shared with neighbouring Lesotho, the next stage of the Highlands Project is being protested until past issues and inequities are resolved.

San Roque Dam in the Philippines has united the Ibaloi peoples of the Cordillera to discourage the Ex-Im Bank of Japan from investing. Pakistan has faced considerable internal division over the proposed Kalabagh Dam. Impoverished Laos, which has no resources to export but water and timber, is not yet moving ahead with Nam Theun 2; on a lesser scale, in 1997 the Asian Development Bank had to halt Nam Leuk Dam for several months due to recurring problems.

The entire world is familiar with the messy, protracted court battles surrounding the Sardar Sarovar and projects on the Narmada River. Even those awed by the scale of the Three Gorges dam project are equally awed by the reports of corruption, controversy, costs overruns, and escalating estimates of human displacement. In the early 1990s, in Nepal, the World Bank pulled out its loan, effectively ending thebillion Arun III hydroelectric project.

Ralco Dam on Chile’s Bio Bio River has been suspended in limbo. Panama has been trying to get dams on rivers feeding the Canal approved over public opposition. A province in Argentina has banned any new dams. Turkey is facing pointed and heated international opposition to its Ilisu Dam project. Just two months ago, Finland's administrative courts blocked power firm Kemijoki Oy from constructing a large hydroelectric dam at Vuotos in eastern Lapland. From the Darling to the Snake Rivers, Australia and the US have been bogged down in national debate over whether to raise dams to meet energy needs, or breach them for environmental flows.

I speak of these conflict-laden projects at such lengths to drive home that they appear omnipresent and inescapable. Not just to you and me, but to the less focused public. The controversies are not going to whither away on their own; if anything, they are beginning to metastasise. Indeed, opposition has shifted outside, at dam sites, to inside, at annual corporate shareholder meetings, like a sword of Damocles.

Some, on both sides of the dams issue, may find it satisfying to attribute all these controversies to the impact of the WCD Report. Yet each of these projects, and ensuing confrontations, began before WCD was ever conceived in Gland, four years ago. Indeed donor funding for dam related projects had fallen frombillion during the late 1970s and early 1980s to .1 billion by the time WCD first met.

Likewise, the WCD findings and recommendations quite often simply confirm, build upon, and closely align with, analysis conducted by others. Why was there no chorus of disapproval, or anger, when IDB evaluations of dams from 1960 to 1999 revealed an average cost overrun of 45 percent? Or when both ADB World Bank studies of irrigation schemes found crop intensities at 60-85 percent of expected? Maybe because they were isolated reports not dealing with the problem as a whole. Or perhaps the recommendations with such reports did not threaten "business as usual." The WCD Report simply cut to the quick, and through thick of the issue.

Likewise, the issue of Prior Informed Consent – a controversial plank in the WCD platform, was published under the Inter-American Development Bank’s own safeguard policies long before the WCD Report was drafted. And let me cite from a document concerned with involuntary displacement:

"For the population involved, resettlement must result in a clear improvement of their living standard, because the people directly affected by a project should always be the first to benefit instead of suffering for the benefit of others. Special care must be given to vulnerable ethnic groups. Even if there is no resettlement problem, the impact of water resources development projects on local people can be considerable during both construction and operation. All such projects have to be planned, implemented and operated with the clear consent of the public concerned."

Where is that written? In IRN’s Silenced Rivers? In The Berne Declaration? Or in the WCD’s Dams and Development? If you guessed the last, you’re close. But in fact it comes from ICOLD’s 1997 Position Paper on Dams and Environment, page 13

The point of all this is that there is far more literature that can be used to unite us rather than divide us as we move forward. Indeed it begs the question, "Since dam controversy was increasing regardless of the WCD, and since dam development was declining before the WCD, and since other reports, including yours, paint a similar portrait of dams beyond the WCD…what real benefit comes if dam proponents try to ignore, dismiss or reject the WCD Report?"

CVJ Varma himself answers in his conclusion of an otherwise critical essay which took issue with aspects of the Report: "However," he wrote,"the WCD report cannot be wished away. The good from it could help the world if the report is not thrust down the throats of the unwilling. I believe, as President of ICOLD, that our committees should examine the various aspects of the recommendations and see how, and to what extent, those which are practicable can be used for the overall benefit of mankind."

His statement succinctly sets the tone and agenda for ICOLD and for this symposium in particular, framing the issue as a challenge. That challenge is not so much how or whether you react to a few hundred pages of paper bound in a Report, but in how or whether you use that Report to respond to the few hundred million people who must assess whether a large dam, or alternative, is the best and preferred option. The challenge, in short, lies not on how little you have to lose with the WCD Report, but how much you have to gain from it.

There is, foremost, the political reality that other constituencies and stakeholders in the dams debate will not allow the Report to be ignored. Within a few months of publication, the WCD Report had sold 5,000 copies, won several important awards, been the focus of more than 50 meetings, reviews, and consultations literally across all five continents and across the entire spectrum of institutions. Since March, the WCD Report and Knowledge base has been circulated on CDROM to 16,000 individuals, and another 10,000 have been targeted.

Several development banks are moving forward with the Report; none have rejected it. Major industries have adopted it into their work. Full translations are requested or underway in four languages, including Chinese. Funding and favour for a two year dissemination team has been established.

It is, I think, safe to say that the Report is decidedly not being thrust down the throats of the unwilling. As a practical matter, ICOLD’s 81 national committees may need to go beyond the comments and responses to the now-extinct WCD, to draft comments and responses to the larger concerns and controversies of society. Indeed, let me quote the ICOLD paper again on information transfer and consensus building: "Dam engineers must contribute, through their professional expertise, to a clear understanding and dispassionate discussion based on facts and not on irrational ideas of the positive and negative aspects of a project and its possible alternatives."

2. Our binding obligations

Second, that task involves our collective responsibility to the poor, who need development. It is no longer enough to repeat that one billion need fresh water, or that two billion need electricity, or that the world must be fed. No one disputes that, least of all the WCD Report. Perhaps you can continue to assert that large dams still should be the dominant paradigm to meet those development needs and pressures.

But more likely they will need some persuasion, and the WCD Report provides not just a rationale, but a framework, to persuade, with a common message and priorities that all parties appear ready to accept.


What is that message? The WCD Report unequivocally affirms that in response to growing development needs, dams remain one important option. To turn that option into an ideological crusade --- by either side and for whatever reason --- would not only be doomed to failure but ultimately disenfranchising: Such a course would pre-empt whole societies from making an informed choice which is their sovereign and human right.


But an informed choice it must be and that is what the Report aims to support. Thus we include beneficiaries in the process – their rights and risks give them a firm and prominent seat at the table. Thus also we place national sovereignty prominently in this framework; as a Minister, I would not have signed a Report that in any way curtailed or diminished my right, and risks, as an elected politician. The State remains the ultimate arbiter.


3. Reassertion of Leadership Role

Finally, at the top of that agenda, the best gain that could come out of the use of the WCD Report is the reassertion of your leadership role: as individuals, as national committees, as an international association. I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, but we have been involved too long, and worked too hard together, to pretend that there was never a quiet, understated rivalry between your long standing global Commission and my small and temporary one.

"Why," asked many ICOLD members back in 1997, "does the world need a new global commission on dams when one already exists?Why do we need an exercise to reach consensus, cite case studies, build on positive examples, and advocate environment-conscious planning, when our Position Paper already does that, in two languages, in less than 25 pages?"

Such questions may have provoked many discussions inside and outside ICOLD, but right now the distinctions are moot. There no longer is a WCD. All Commissioners have gone their separate ways. The different reports – your slim green pamphlet and our fat blue book – are available to all, to work from, or use as tools.Only one global large dam commission remains today. And you are its leaders.

No one can ignore your criticisms of the Report. That is part of the discussion, a crucial part but only the beginning. I have read where some of you have gone on record arguing that the WCD Report will lead to underdevelopment or that it imposes impossible standards on nations of the South. On reflection I am persuaded that these predictions may in fact emerge – not through people committing to the Report, but through omitting to use it as a catalyst.

You may, of course, elect to walk away from the WCD process. You can also walk away from the WCD Report, if you so choose. But you can’t walk away from, or turn your backs on, the controversial situation which gave rise to the WCD in the first place, and which the WCD Report can, if used, help resolve. It has lit candles in dark corners. One only needs to see it not as another crisis, but as a sudden opportunity.

Conclusion - WCD as ICOLD’s Tool

Let me offer my sense of what kind of opportunity it presents. The WCD Report is simply an important tool – like a computer aided design package, a compacting roller, a concrete pump, electronic distance measuring device or safety instrumentation. It is, by itself, no better and no worse than the man or woman who uses it. Indeed, a French saying is that there are no bad tools, only poor craftsmen. You are the master builders, the craftsmen who can use this tool as a new approach to decision – making by all.

We, now self-disbanded Commissioners, can no longer make those decisions. You can, and I hope you will. Our Report offers a new tool for decision making. If developers – public or private – can employ it, or adapt it to respond to the challenges of society to day, and to the controversies in the world to which we all must return, then dams will continue to be built and improved upon. However, if you decline to pick up the tool and use it, then there is little chance that societies will have the means on which to base their decision, then opposition and controversy will continue to grow – not because of the WCD report, but in spite of it.

One of my colleagues in Africa, upon hearing about the Report from others, chose to see it as presenting a crisis, he worried that the high standards it set, based on best practice, would ultimately place brakes on his country. "It might imprison us," he wrote to me. My response is that we all have been imprisoned too long already. We were imprisoned by our prejudices, chained by our assumptions, shackled by our narrow perspectives, bound by our false beliefs. The Report, I hope you will agree, is our chance, at last, to liberate ourselves.

Where, how, and how soon we do that in each individual country context is up to you – we provided some directions and tools – it is up to you to take the initiative, and the lead in local process to adopt, adapt and implement them, as the craftsmen you are.

I wish you the best in that endeavour.

Thank you.