By Peter Bosshard
Huffington Post, November 16, 2010
Ten years ago on this day, Nelson Mandela launched the report of the
independent World Commission on Dams (WCD) at a glitzy ceremony in
London. The Commission - composed of prominent members of governments,
the dam industry, civil society and academia - had carried out the first
in-depth assessment of the development impacts of dams. It found that
while "dams have made an important and significant contribution to human
development," in "too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary
price has been paid to secure those benefits." For example, dams have
displaced 40 to 80 million people worldwide, and most of these people
have been impoverished in the process.
The Commission proposed a new framework for decision-making, which
avoided simply pitting economic against social and environmental
interests. It presented innovative recommendations on how best to assess
available needs and options in the energy and water sectors, integrate
the various interests from the beginning of the planning process, and
respect the rights of all parties whose interests are at stake. Most
importantly, the Commission proposed that affected people should become
active parties at the negotiating table, not just passive victims or
beneficiaries of dam projects.
"Where rights compete or conflict, negotiations conducted in good faith
offer the only process through which various interests can be
legitimately reconciled," the WCD report suggests. The Commissioners,
who represent very different interests in the big dams debate, showed
through their own example how negotiations and dialogue conducted in
good faith can produce innovative solutions.
The WCD framework was embraced by international organizations and
environmental groups and by some government agencies, banks and
companies. In countries such as South Africa, Nepal, Germany and Sweden,
governments and civil society groups adapted the recommendations to
their national contexts through dialogue processes. The European Union
decided that hydropower projects that sell carbon credits on the
European market would have to respect the WCD framework. On the other
hand the dam industry, the World Bank and many dam-building governments
claimed that the new approach was too time-consuming and complicated.
During the last 10 years, the rights-based approach to development has
found support beyond the dams sector. In September 2007, the United
Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples with 144 votes to four. The Declaration recognized
that indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior informed consent
regarding any projects "affecting their lands or territories," and in
particular projects which require their relocation. In countries such as
India, Brazil, Burma and China, a disproportionate share of dam projects
affects indigenous peoples. Their right to free, prior informed consent
has also been recognized by the Asian Development Bank, the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights and other international bodies.
Even the dam industry's new Hydropower Sustainability Assessment
Protocol recognizes consent as "proven best practice."
Just as importantly, the WCD framework has proven its value in practice.
A survey conducted by the UN Environment Programme found that many
governments have used WCD recommendations when revising their water and
energy laws, and in specific projects. The South African government,
whose water minister had chaired the Commission, used the WCD
recommendations to prepare an innovative program to share the benefits
of the Maguga Dam with the communities affected by it. The communities
participated in preparing the program, and have escaped the fate of
impoverishment that has beset so many dam-affected people.
In my native Switzerland, people have for a long time had the right to
vote on hydropower projects at local or state level. As a consequence,
dam builders make sure that they minimize resettlement and share
benefits with affected communities. Since the 1960s, no people have been
displaced by dams in Switzerland, even though scores of projects have
been built. In some cases, communities have also stopped projects for
environmental reasons. In January 2009, the mountain village of Bergün
for example voted to stop an $82 million hydropower project which would
have impacted an important watershed. Other environmentally damaging
projects meanwhile went ahead. Experience shows that a rights-based
approach will not resolve all conflicts, but will overall lead to better
I was present when the World Commission on Dams was conceived, and when
Nelson Mandela delivered the final report in London. I had the privilege
to get to know the Commissioners as people of the highest integrity, who
came up with an innovative approach through good faith negotiations. The
time for a rights-based approach to development has come, and the WCD
report offers great guidelines on who to turn it into practice. Happy
Birthday, World Commission on Dams!
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers.
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