Dams, lies and red tape

Pro- and anti-dam activists join hands to establish an independent body for reviewing large projects

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

IN A development having far-reaching implications, dam critics and proponents from all over the world agreed to work together to set up an independent commission to review the world's dams at a workshop in Gland, Switzerland, on April 10- 11. The top-level commission will review the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of the world's dams, recommend international standards on dam construction and assess sustainable and equitable methods of land and water management and energy production.

The review commission will also make recommendations on repairing the environmental damage done by existing dams and on compensating people whose livelihoods have suffered because of dams.

Co-sponsored by the World Bank (WB) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the 35 participants at the workshop included senior WB officials, critics of large dams from advocacy groups and academia, representatives from dam-building companies and agencies and dam-affected people.

The Gland meeting itself was a result of sustained campaign by dam-critics from all over the world demanding the rejection of a review of 50 WB-funded dams by the bank's operation evaluation department (OED) in August 1996. Forty-nine NGOs from 21 countries, including the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, had urged the commissioning of "a comprehensive, unbiased and authoritative review of past WB lending for large dams".

This demand thus seems to have been accepted at the subsequent Gland meeting. However, the demand for a moratorium on the provision of loans, credits, guarantees and other forms of support for large dams until the review commission is established, remains unaddressed.

Participants denounced the conclusion of the OED report which states that the benefits of large dams "far outweighed" their costs. The International Rivers Network, a US based NGO, has found that figures used in the review "appear systematically to exaggerate actual project benefits". OED's figures for hydropower production from individual dams, for example, appear to exaggerate actual electricity production by as much as 100 per cent.

Over the next six months, IUCN will work with the WB to find funding sources for the independent review initiative, establish its terms of reference and select five to eight commissioners. Once established, the review will have two years to receive submissions, hold hearings, commission studies and publish its conclusions.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, who represented India's Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), welcomed the decision to set up an independent review commission but added that it would not lessen the intensity of the campaigns against dams, to bring justice for dam-affected people and for the implementation of equitable and sustainable alternatives.

Peter Bosshard, secretary of the Switzerland advocacy group Bern Declaration, said, "We are aware that we will need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that the review is truly independent and that its terms of reference are as comprehensive as agreed in Gland."

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