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Five Years after Landmark Report on Dams

Experts call for stronger standards

Five years after the independent World Commission on Dams (WCD) published its landmark report on dams and development, international experts called for stronger social and environmental standards for water and power projects. At a conference organized by International Rivers Network (IRN) with the support of Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, the experts discussed the progress that has been achieved in the large dams debate in the last five years, and identified perspectives for future improvements. In Brief reports.

The World Commission on Dams was initiated by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union in 1997. Its mandate was to carry out the first independent, comprehensive evaluation of the development impacts of large dams, and to put forward recommendations for future water and power sector projects. The WCD consisted of twelve members from governments, industry, academia, and civil society. Its approach of bringing together leading representatives of the various interest groups was hailed as a new model of global governance.

The WCD's report, Dams and Development, was published on November 16, 2000. It found that dams have made an important contribution to human development, but that in too many cases, an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure their benefits. The WCD put forward a new framework for decision-making on water and power projects. This framework consists of seven strategic priorities and 26 concrete recommendations.

* Some progress in adopting new approach to dams ...
The WCD report called for a new approach to decision-making in the water and power sectors. According to the report, all needs and options should be assessed in a balanced way before projects are identified; dam-affected people must become the first beneficiaries of projects and have their rights guaranteed; environmental concerns must be integrated into all project decisions; and urgent efforts are needed to address the still-unresolved social and environmental legacies of existing dams. In the past five years, the WCD recommendations have become the most important benchmark against which all new dam projects are being measured.

Deborah Moore, a former Commissioner of the WCD, said at the conference in Berlin: "The WCD framework has become the de facto international standard for dams, whether or not it has been formally adopted by all dam-building institutions. Communities and grassroots organisations around the world are using the WCD report as a tool to change their own situations. On the other hand, the lack of on-the-ground implementation of new non-dam approaches recommended by the WCD in specific projects is disappointing."

A new report published by IRN documents that in recent months, important public and private financial institutions have committed to the principles and recommendations of the WCD. Multi-stakeholder processes in several countries, including Germany, Nepal, South Africa and Sweden, have adapted the recommendations to their national contexts.

A growing number of institutions and governments, including most recently HSBC bank, has formally adopted the WCD’s full decision-making framework, including the strategic priorities and the policy principles. The UK Government is on record as stating that it is “implementing the recommendations of the WCD”. The Swiss Export Credit Agency, ERG, expects project developers to address the WCD’s seven strategic priorities, and the sectoral guidelines of the German, French and Japanese Export Credit Agencies are based on the WCD’s decision-making framework. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) applies screening and environmental assessment criteria that incorporate the WCD core values and strategic priorities. The Swedish and German bilateral aid agencies have adopted the WCD decision-making framework and are supporting their partner countries and project developers to implement the WCD recommendations.

The two biggest European public banks, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), have recently
announced that they would take the WCD into account in developing hydro projects to generate carbon credits. This announcement came in response to a requirement from the European Union that hydro projects can only sell carbon credits inside to EU member states if they respect the decision-making framework of the WCD.

* ... but World Bank turns its back and controversies remain
In contrast, the World Bank - one of the original sponsors of the Commission - walked away from the WCD report once it was published, and adopted a new dam-building strategy that contradicts the WCD's recommendations. Ann Kathrin Schneider, a Policy Analyst at International Rivers Network and author of IRN’s report, said: "We call on the World Bank to revisit its dam-happy new strategy and implement the standards of the WCD. The World Bank's new strategy completely disregards the WCD's findings and the need to respect the risks and rights of affected people. It is at odds with a global consensus on water and energy that promotes decentralised, low-risk solutions."

Civil society groups stressed at the Berlin conference that they look forward to collaborating with institutions from all sectors in implementing the WCD recommendations and finding sustainable solutions for meeting people's water and power needs. Frank Muramuzi, the Executive Director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists in Uganda, described how the WCD approach helped bring together the different interest groups in a debate about his country's future power sector development.

Frank Muramuzi said: "We will continue to fight for the interests of project-affected communities and the environment. At the same time, we will cooperate with all parties that commit to the WCD framework to improve the access of Uganda's poor to electricity and water."

(Posted: 15 November 2005)

* For further information go to: www.irn.org/wcd/5/background.html

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