Dams destroy environment, group warns

Dams are continuing to cause excessive environmental damage despite recommendations from the World Commission on Dams to ensure environmental consideration.

The report from WWF looks at six dams under construction in the last five years, all of which fail to meet the recommendations of the World Commission.

It shows that dams can damage, drown or even dry out wetlands, an important source of water, as well as destroying fisheries and threatening habitats of endangered species.

In addition, despite claiming that they can provide cheaper power and water for better irrigation systems, dams can actually result in economic disruption, with electricity prices rising and many people displaced, the report says.

The World Commission on Dams was established in 1998 to undertake a review of the development effectiveness of dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy where possible, and to "develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards, where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams".

It recommended that any construction plans are given public approval, comprehensive assessments of other options are made and that the economic benefits of any dam are shared with local communities.

"Governments along with the World Bank must insist that the WCD's recommendations are applied to all dam projects now," said Jamie Pittock, head of WWF's Global Freshwater Programme. "This is not the engineering heyday of the 1950s when dams were seen as the hallmark of development. We know dams can cause damage and we must put this knowledge to work."

The projects that the WWF report highlights are:
  • the Chalillo Dam in Belize which was meant to reduce electricity imports and lower electricity prices, yet local people have seen an average increase of 12% in electricity prices while 1,000hectares of rainforest has been flooded;
  • the US$650 million Ermenek Dam in Turkey which, together with five other hydropower projects, could result in insufficient water flow to maintain the variety of wildlife that lives in the Goksu River delta;
  • the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, which is approved by the World bank and which will affect the livelihoods of 50,000 people in Laos when the water is diverted from the Nam Theun river.

    In addition, it shows that the problem is not confined to the developing world. In Iceland the OECD found that the Karahnjukar Dam - a flagship project - could cause upward pressure on the country's inflation and interest rates. In Spain, WWF claim that the Melonares Dam has failed to take account of other viable and cheaper alternatives to supply drinking water to the city of Seville.

    And, in Australia the Burnett Dam is struggling to be economically viable and threatens the endangered Queensland lungfish, the report says.

    Globally, there are 400 large dams under construction and hundreds more planned. According to the WWF report 60% of major rivers have already been fragmented and up to 80 million people displaced.

    "Bad dams and bad economics are apparently still alive and kicking five years after the WCD," said Ute Collier the report's author. "As the energy and water crisis tightens we need to ensure that we choose the solutions with the least environmental damage and the greatest social benefits."

    David Hopkins

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