FutureDAMS is all about improving the decision-making around large dams. Where to build them, how to reduce negative impacts, how to maximise positive impacts, and, occasionally, when not to build them. Twenty years ago, the World Commission on Dams (WCD, 1998-2000) sought to address similar questions, and a new article by Christopher Schulz and Bill Adams at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge looks at the debates that this global governance forum spawned.

The WCD was established following a workshop in Gland, Switzerland, in 1997, co-hosted by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and attended by a diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from electricity companies to radical anti-dam NGOs. Its creation can be seen as a response to growing public controversy around large dams in the 1990s. In the 1994 Manibeli Declaration, a group of NGOs called for a complete halt of World Bank-funded dam construction, and in the same year, the World Bank withdrew from India’s Sardar Sarovar dam project after an independent review of its environmental impact and resettlement management, which in turn was in part a response to the anti-dam activism of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (‘Save the Narmada River’) group.

The WCD was composed of 12 Commissioners, selected for their opposing views on large dams (pro-dam; anti-dam; neutral), representing different stakeholder groups (NGOs; academics; industry; governments) and world regions. In this sense it differed from previous global commissions, which were overwhelmingly populated by ‘neutral’, detached elder statesmen and government representatives. The WCD had the support of a similarly diverse Secretariat based in Cape Town, was chaired by the former South African Minister for Water Affairs and Forestry Kader Asmal, and its work was overseen by a 68 member Stakeholder Forum representing a diversity of interests in dams.

During a two-year period it sought to review research and evidence on large dams as comprehensively as possible, and to develop policy guidelines that could serve to inform decision-making around large dams. Its recommendations were placed in a report that was launched in the presence of Nelson Mandela in London, November 2000. They centred on the mitigation and avoidance of negative environmental and social impacts of dams, called for turning negatively affected people into beneficiaries, and suggested to evaluate dam construction options more broadly, always keeping in mind that alternative strategies for economic development might exist.

As part of their work within FutureDAMS, Christopher Schulz and Bill Adams reviewed the various responses and debates that followed the work of the WCD. While the WCD attracted global attention by the media and all relevant stakeholder groups at the time, such initiatives are rarely investigated from a long-term perspective. Yet, global forums to review scientific evidence and discuss environmental governance issues are increasingly common, giving relevance to such research, beyond the specific issue of dams. Recent examples are the IPCC for climate change or IPBES for biodiversity. In their article, the two geographers describe various responses to the WCD.

Responses to WCD were voiced, among others, in debates around the social and environmental impacts of dams, discussions of stakeholder reactions to WCD, suggestions for follow-up strategies, and in the context of designing global (environmental) governance structures. These responses paint a mixed picture of the legacies of the WCD.

Sceptics sought to either dismiss it as biased and illegitimate or tried to replace its recommendations with alternative approaches, such as the industry-led “Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol”. Supporters differed in whether they proposed to implement WCD recommendations with the help of novel techniques for participation and decision-support software, or whether they simply attempted to use the authority of a global commission to give more emphasis to their existing concerns about insufficient mitigation of social and environmental impacts.

While it may be difficult to attribute any concrete policy changes to the work of the WCD especially over the long-term, what all responses discussed in the paper have in common is that they make reference to the WCD’s work. In this sense, the WCD’s mission to shape debates around dams has been very directly achieved.


Photo by Petar Petkovski on Unsplash
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.
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