Friday, January 17, 2014

US Congress Takes Landmark Decision for Rivers and Rights

Congress Takes Landmark Decision for Rivers and Rights
Peter Bosshard, Huffington Post, January 17, 2014

Dams have turned freshwater into the ecosystem most threatened by
species extinction, displaced 80 million people and impoverished many
more. Even so, the World Bank is eager to re-engage in large dam
projects around the world, and other financiers are following in its
wake. The US Congress has now poured cold water on these plans. In a
landmark decision it has instructed the US government to oppose the
construction of large dams in international financial institutions, and
called for justice for the victims of human rights abuses in their projects.

The new instructions were sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), and
are part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the budget compromise
which was approved by the US Senate and House this week. In the section
on multilateral financial institutions, the act says:

"The Secretary of the Treasury shall instruct the United States
executive director of each international financial institution that it
is the policy of the United States to oppose any loan, grant, strategy
or policy of such institution to support the construction of any large
hydroelectric dam (as defined in "Dams and Development: A New Framework
for Decision-Making," World Commission on Dams (November 2000))."

(Like the dam industry, the World Commission on Dams basically defines
dams as large if they are at least 15 meters high. You can find the
language on p. 1361 of the voluminous act.)

At a time when better solutions are readily available, the Congressional
decision supports a shift of public funding from large, often
destructive hydropower projects to decentralized renewable energy
solutions which are more effective at reducing energy poverty and
protecting the environment. Under the new mandate, the US executive
directors will have to object to dam projects such as Inga 3 on the
Congo, Dasu on the Indus, Adjarala in Togo, Amaila Falls in the
rainforest of Guyana, and the dams in the Nam Ngiep and Sekong river
basins in Laos.

The budget act also takes action to support the victims of human rights
abuses in development projects. It instructs the US government to "seek
to ensure that each such institution responds to the findings and
recommendations of its accountability mechanisms by providing just
compensation and other appropriate redress to individuals and
communities that suffer violations of human rights, including forced
displacement, resulting from any loan, grant, strategy or policy of such
institution." More specifically, Congress asks for regular updates about
measures undertaken by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development
Bank (IADB) to ensure reparations for the survivors of the massacres
carried out under the Chixoy dam project in Guatemala. (See p. 1240 for
this provision.)

More than 400 Maya Achi indigenous people were killed in a series of
massacres to make way for the World Bank and IADB's Chixoy Dam on the
Rio Negro in 1978. With support from International Rivers and other
activists, the survivors of the massacre negotiated a reparations
agreement with the Guatemalan government in 2010, but the government and
financiers have dragged their feet on implementing it ever since. The
new decision by the US Congress makes a big step towards finally
bringing justice to the victims of the Chixoy massacres and other human
rights abuses.

The World Bank has close to 200 member countries. The Bank and other
international financial institutions are free to ignore the position of
the US executive directors. If this happens, Congress should redirect
its financial contributions to institutions that are more willing and
better equipped to support clean local energy solutions. Through the
Power 4 People campaign, International Rivers and other organizations
are calling on governments and national parliaments to shift $1.6
billion from the World Bank's International Development Association to
the Green Climate Fund and other appropriate channels for decentralized
renewable energy solutions.

The language in the new Congressional act is a breakthrough for healthy
rivers and the rights of river-based communities, and we salute all the
efforts that made it possible. At the same time, serious problems in the
global energy policy of the US government and Congress continue to
exist. First, the appropriations bill that was originally drafted by the
Senate instructed the US government to oppose not just large dams, but
also coal projects in international financial institutions. Under
pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, coal projects were dropped from the
final text in the negotiations with the House of Representatives.
Policies to protect the climate in the operations of US export
financiers were also rolled back.

Secondly, the US government plans to increase its support for large
hydropower dams in Africa such as the Inga 3 Dam through USAID and the
new Power Africa initiative at the same time as Congress is asking it to
oppose such projects in international financial institutions. The US
should not fund projects bilaterally that it would reject on the
multilateral level. We celebrate an important breakthrough for rivers
and rights today. Making the new policy more consistent will be the task
for tomorrow.

Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers

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