Big dams are bad news

Private companies investing in dams is bad news for the environment

Published: Saturday 15 May 1999

according to a recent discussion paper prepared by the World Wide Fund for Nature, increasing privatisation and globalisation of the power sector will lead to ecological destruction and more displacement of people. The paper entitled 'A Place For Dams in the 21st century? ' says: "Until recently, in many developing countries, the energy sector was in the public sector. Due to various reasons -- low efficiency, massive financial losses, distribution problems, bureaucracy -- the power sector, like many others, is being handed over to private venture. There are already active campaigns in some countries to privatise the hydropower sector. Now, for the first time, the private sector may support and lobby in favour of dams, not as a means of obtaining construction contracts but in terms of owning and operating them for long-term profit."

This report assumes significance with the setting up of the World Commissions on Dams ( wcd ) by the World Bank to monitor all big dams in future. "The work of the wcd is also complex as the World Bank has long supported and funded the hydropower industry and still considers that it has a rosy future in developing countries in a warming world," reads the report. World Bank lending for hydropower has declined by 25 per cent in the 1990s. This will lead to private sector investments in the hydropower sector, it reports.

The report has also suggested strategies for the commission to tackle the sensitive debate over big dams in the context of its ecological impacts and economical benefits. It suggests "research and studies should focus on specific cities and potential impacts of the 140 largest dams in the world as classified by the International Commission on Large Dams' World Register on Dams". The commission must deal with this approach, together with the views and concerns of the vocal anti-dam non-governmental organisation ( ngo s) who have joined the commission, it recommends.

Admitting that the governments of developing countries such as Brazil, China and India have adopted an aggressive stance on big dams, as they consider hydroelectricity vital for long-term economic growth and prosperity, it has recommended that the commission should not seek a universal solution to the building of dams as it is not possible to have a single solution to this issue.

As there is no uniformity in hydropower development and construction of dams in different countries, the report has categorised the countries into three groups, according to hydropower potential and their uses to evolve need-specific policies on big dams. It hawks for strategies that must reflect and accommodate such different categories and needs.

After categorisation it has suggested establishment of a set of guidelines, standards and criteria to create an appropriate framework for future dam constructions. "Identify countries that should not build any more dams under any circumstances. This should be based on an assessment of present energy production, per capita consumption and the level of dam building, as well as basic water needs of urban and rural populations," says the report. It also advises establishment of an inventory of dams to be demolished by 2010 from countries that have a large number of dams and which are energy sufficient.

It has suggested identifying ecologically sensitive sites of different countries and a ban on construction of dams in these places. The 'off-list' should be based on existing scientific data and established protected areas such as the World Heritage Sites.

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