China Dialogue, November 16, 2010
A decade after the World Commission on Dams launched its seminal report
on responsible water and energy projects, Peter Bosshard says its
recommendations are still spot on.
Ten years ago today, 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 organisations 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 by 144 votes to four. The Declaration recognised that
indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior informed consent
regarding any projects "affecting their lands or territories", and in
particular projects that 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 recognised 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 - a voluntary standard - recognises consent as "proven best
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 programme to share the benefits
of the Maguga Dam in Swaziland with the communities affected by it.
(South Africa part-funded the project and is guaranteed 60% of its
water.) The communities participated in the programme's preparation, and
have escaped the impoverishment that has beset so many dam-affected people.
The Chinese government was initially opposed to an approach that
strengthened the rights of dam-affected people. Yet in 2007 the
government, like most other developing nations, voted in favor of the UN
declaration recognising indigenous peoples' right to consent. At the
same time, several Chinese dam builders - hoping to sell carbon credits
on the European market - claim that their projects comply with the
recommendations of the WCD. An investigation by my organisation,
US-based NGO International Rivers, found that the reality often does not
live up to these claims. Yet hydropower companies can no longer claim
that a framework that respects the rights of affected people and the
environment cannot be implemented.
In my native Switzerland, people have long had the right to vote on
hydropower projects at local or state level. As a consequence, dam
builders make sure that they minimise 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 US$82 million (547 million yuan) 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 development outcomes.
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 how to turn it into practice.
Happy Birthday, World Commission on Dams!
Peter Bosshard is policy director at International Rivers.
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