Nelson Mandela and World Commission on Dams launch ‘landmark’ report

Nelson Mandela joined the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in launching their final report on dams and sustainable development, which found that while dams have delivered significant benefits, in too many cases the price for local people has been unacceptable and often unnecessary.

The publication of Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making follows two years of study of more than 900 submissions on experiences with large dams from 79 countries. In particular, it includes consultations in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Brazil and Vietnam which gave voice to individual views and attracted 1,400 participants.

According to the WCD, by 2000 the world had built 45,000 large dams in order to irrigate a third of all crops, generate a fifth of all power, control floods in wet times and store water in case of drought. However, in the last century, large dams also disrupted the ecology of half of the world’s rivers, displaced over 40 million people, and burdened nations with debt.

“Freedom is not enough,” said Nelson Mandela at the launch. “People need light at night, water to drink, and fish to feed their families. Sustainable development needs water for political freedom.”

In order to improve the outcomes of dam developments the Commission has produced seven strategic priorities and 26 guidelines based on recognising rights and assessing the risks to all interested parties. The report shows developers how to gain acceptance, assess options, address problems associated with existing dams, sustain rivers and livelihoods, recognise entitlements and secure benefits, ensure compliance, and share rivers across boundaries.

Dams frequently entail a reallocation of benefits from local riparian users to new groups of beneficiaries at a regional or national level, says the Commission. “The costs and benefits [of dams] must be borne and taken by all involved,” said Professor Kader Asmal, Chair of the WCD, South African Minister for Education, and former Minister for Water Affairs and Forestry under Nelson Mandela.

“It means nothing to build billion-dollar dams if your monuments alienate the weak,” said Asmal. “It means nothing to stop all dams if your protests only entrench poverty. But show me a clear and sustainable way to provide food, energy, stability and running water for those who most need it – that means something. And that we have done.”

The WCD claims that those developing dam projects are likely to take note of their report. The cost of controversy is too high, it says, and that by using the WCD’s framework developers will reduce costs, save time, avoid conflicts, and deliver more equitable development outcomes through eliminating ‘bad’ dams at an early stage. The report does not, however, herald an end to dam building, says the WCD.

“The Commission has shown the way forward,” said Nelson Mandela.

According to the International Hydropower Association, the general principles and recommendations previously put forward by the industry’s professional associations are well reflected in the overall conclusions of the WCD. However, the Association also notes that the overall tone of the report is negative concerning the role of dams, generalising adverse aspects and understating social and economic benefits. “We feel that some statements are based on inadequately researched data, for example, the estimates of the number of people displaced by dams,” says the Association in its initial comment on the report.

“Alternatives to large dams recommended by the Report as ‘near-term solutions’ are qualitatively interesting, but are not realistic on an adequate scale to meet the needs of an extra three billion people by the year 2050,” says the Association. “Also, the social and ecological impacts of these suggested alternatives are not discussed for comparison.”

Dam critics have responded to the report by challenging those funding the dam industry, including the World Bank and export credit agencies, to halt all support for dams until the commission’s recommendations are fully implemented. The groups are also demanding reparations for social and environmental damage caused by dams.

“The World Commission on Dams report vindicates much of what dam critics have long argued. If the builders and funders of dams follow the recommendations of the WCD, the era of destructive dams should come to an end”, says Mr Patrick McCully, campaigns director of the California-based International Rivers Network.

World Bank President, James D Wolfensohn welcomed the work of the Commission. “This impressive report shows that there is common ground that can be found among people of good faith coming from very diverse starting points,” said Wolfensohn. “The World Bank firmly believes in this process of reaching out and encouraging dialogue and consensus building. The Bank is currently funding less than 1% of dam projects worldwide within strict environmental and social guidelines. Our involvement in large dams has been decreasing and is focusing more on financing dam rehabilitation and safety and much less on financing new dams.”

The World Bank was one of 53 financial contributors to the project.

“The critical test for us will be whether our borrowing countries and project financiers accept the recommendations of the Commission and want to build on them,” added Wolfensohn. The President said that he would now take the report to Washington so that its conclusions and recommendations can be studied by Bank staff and by the 182 governments that are the Bank’s shareholders.

The WCD, which expired with the publication of the report, consisted of commissioners representing a variety of interests as diverse as award-winning hydroelectric engineer, Jan Veltrop, and the human and political rights campaigner, Medha Patkar, founder of the Struggle to Save the Narmada River. According to Asmal, all 12 Commissioners took an equal role in the report, with the independence of the WCD being central to lending it authority, as did its transparent and participatory work programme.

Dams and Development is available for $29.95 (£20) from Earthscan, Freepost 1, 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9BR; telephone +44 20 7278 1142, email

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