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 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 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.

Homepage image from International Rivers shows former WCD chair Kader Asmal and Nelson Mandela launching the commission’s report

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