The Multinational Monitor

Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2


T H E    F R O N T

Damning the Dams

The long-awaited final report of the World Commission on Dams, (WCD) issued in London on November 16, has provided a boost to anti-dam campaigners around the world.

The report "vindicates much of what dam critics have long argued," says Patrick McCully, campaigns director of International Rivers Network (IRN). "If the builders and funders of dams follow the recommendations of the WCD, the era of destructive dams should come to an end."

The 404-page report, "Dams and Development" provides ample evidence that the world's 45,000 large dams have failed to produce as much electricity, provide as much water or control as much flood damage as their backers claim. In addition, it confirmed that these massive projects, which block half the world's rivers, regularly suffer huge cost-overruns and time delays. The report's findings came as no surprise to those in the growing global anti-dam movement, but activists were still gratified that the report was as critical as it was. The report concludes:

  • Large dams have forced 40 to 80 million people from their homes and lands, causing extreme economic hardship, community disintegration and an increase in mental and physical health problems. Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities have been particularly hard hit. People living downstream of dams have also suffered from increased disease and the loss of natural resources upon which their livelihoods depended;
  • Dams' impacts on ecosystems are "mostly negative." Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forests, wetlands and farmland, erosion of coastal deltas, and many other unmitigable impacts. And contrary to the industry's summation that dams offer "green" energy, the report concludes that most reservoirs emit greenhouse gases, some in fairly high quantities;
  • The benefits of large dams have largely gone to the already well-off while poorer sectors of society have borne the costs.

Hundreds of dam activists the world over marked the occasion of the report's release by challenging public funding agencies, 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.

"It is time for the iron triangle of governments, the dam industry and its funders to cease building dams until they have incorporated the WCD's recommendations into their policies and practices," said Liane Greeff of the South African NGO Environmental Monitoring Group.

The South Africa-based WCD is an independent body set up to review the development effectiveness of large dams and make recommendations for future planning of water and energy projects. It was formed in 1998 because of pressure from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to analyze the global record of large dams, and acknowledgement from funders like the World Bank that dams were becoming increasingly difficult to build in the face of public opposition. The WCD's 12 commissioners came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds - ranging from Göran Lindahl, CEO of engineering giant ABB, to Medha Patkar, a leading activist with India's Save the Narmada Movement.

Despite this built-in difference in perspective among WCD commissioners, the WCD process was relatively smooth and virtually unmarred by partisan power-plays. As the Financial Times noted, "For such a controversial subject, it is remarkable that the World Commission on Dams came to any conclusions at all. That it managed to agree on the costs and benefits of dam projects should serve as a model for rational debate on other highly contentious development issues."

Although there was consensus among the WCD's commissioners on the final report and widespread approval by NGOs, unsurprisingly, it left many in the dam industry feeling betrayed.

"The overall tone [of the report] is negative concerning the role of dams, generalizing adverse impacts and understating the well-known social and economic benefits," stated the International Hydropower Association in a news release. "We feel that some statements are based on inadequately researched data - for example, the estimates of the number of people displaced by dams." The organization also noted that the WCD's guidelines and recommendations could be seen as "interference" by developing countries' governments.

Some in the dam industry immediately pledged to adopt the WCD report, however. The Swedish firm Skanska announced that it welcomed the report and would follow its guidelines. "We find the Commission's work to be extremely valuable," says Axel Wenblad, vice president of environmental affairs of the Skanska Group. "It represents a major stride for sustainable development, with open and transparent processes in which all affected parties can participate, particularly those groups that are affected directly."

Key Recommendations
The report goes into detail about how dam projects should be evaluated and what processes will ensure that the WCD's core values - equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability - are met. The report recommends that:

  • No dam should be built without the agreement of the affected people;
  • Comprehensive and participatory assessments of the needs to be met, and alternatives for meeting these needs should be developed before proceeding with any new project;
  • Priority should be given to maximizing the efficiency of existing water and energy systems before building any new projects;
  • Environmental assessment should not be merely a formality;
  • Periodic participatory reviews should be done for existing dams to assess such issues as dam safety, and possible decommissioning mechanisms should be developed to provide social reparations for those who are suffering the impacts of dams, and to restore damaged ecosystems.

Among the dozens of ongoing and planned projects which are clearly in breach of the WCD's guidelines are China's Three Gorges Dam, the dams on India's Narmada river, the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, San Roque in the Philippines, Bujagali in Uganda, Ralco in Chile, and numerous dams in the Brazilian Amazon and Southeast Asia's Mekong watershed.

"Speaking as someone whose farm is to be flooded by a dam, the key recommendations of the WCD are that no dam should be built without the agreement of the directly affected people, and that reparations are needed for those who have suffered because of past dams," says Sadi Baron, coordinator of Brazil's Movement of Dam Affected People (MAB).

The Main Event
Hundreds of people from all sides of the debate - including key leaders from around the world, dam activists, dozens of often glum-faced industry representatives and hordes of journalists - attended the unveiling of the WCD report. Nelson Mandela gave the keynote speech.

"This report will help guide our work in the future," said James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, another speaker. "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." The World Bank's press release was laden with tables and graphs showing the institution's decline in lending for large dams in recent years.

The WCD also held launches in other cities around the world to publicize the new report to a wide swath of society. The commission itself will now disband, after a round of launches and meetings to discuss its findings.

Meanwhile, NGOs working on dam issues are already making use of the recommendations and guidelines on individual proposed dams around the world. Groups in Uganda are pressing the World Bank to review the Bujagali Dam against WCD guidelines, requesting that the project be stopped until it can be shown that it meets the standards laid out in the final report.

Those fighting the Ilisu Dam in Turkey are hopeful that the project will not withstand analysis by donor governments in light of WCD guidelines. "The Ilisu Dam violates all of the WCD's guiding principals," says Peter Bosshard of the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration. Says WCD Chair Kamar Asmal, "We have not made a recommendation specifically about Ilisu ... but it does not take much intelligence to see Ilisu does not meet the guidelines for new dams."

The Way Forward
Whether the release of the WCD report will lead to fewer dams and more sustainable methods of energy and water supply remains uncertain. The commission did not recommend a halt to dam construction, and in fact describes the benefits of dams and ways to mitigate their impacts. The optimism many activists feel now may not last if the report is used to justify bad projects.

Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize-winning author from India and supporter of the Save the Narmada Movement, commented, "There are a lot of very important things in the WCD report, though it's obviously a compromise. The problem is that it can be used by the funding agencies to pretend they have an enlightened approach, while the reality remains completely different. The industry is learning our language and then carrying on just the same."

Phil Williams, a hydrologist and dam campaigner, characterized the WCD process as less "truth commission" than "peace process." In an editorial in the London-based The Guardian, he wrote: "The commission, evading its main task of adjudicating the Œdevelopment effectiveness' of dams, emphasizes that it is poor planning of past dams that has caused unnecessary harm. This contradicts critics' charges that it is the dams themselves, no matter how well planned, that inevitably create unmitigated social and ecologic impacts."

He concludes, "The real question in the big dams debate is similar to that posed by nuclear power plants: not how to improve their planning, but how to get rid of them."

International Rivers Network's Executive Director Juliette Majot looked to the future, stating that, while the report's findings should help reduce environmental and social destruction caused by large dams, dam opponents worldwide will still need to campaign to ensure that new large dams are not built, and that reparations are made to people suffering losses from existing projects.

- Lori Pottinger is editor of the International Rivers Network's World Rivers Review.



People's Health Assembly

Savar, Bangladesh - More than two decades ago, the nations of the world issued a call for "Health for all the people of the world by the year 2000," in the Alma Alta Declaration, the product of a World Health Organization-UNICEF conference.

In December 2000, approximately 1,500 public health activists from 93 countries gathered at the spirited and historic People's Health Assembly (PHA) in Bangladesh to evaluate how near or far the world is from meeting the goal, and to map the way forward so that health for all is in fact achieved.

The emerging PHA diagnosis, which focused primarily on healthcare failures in developing countries, was multifaceted: Governments have failed to invest sufficient resources and empower localities to assure adequate nutrition, clean water, maternal and child health care and other components of primary health care. This governmental failure is rooted in many internal problems, but especially reflects the budgetary and policy squeeze imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, foreign debt repayments, as well as conditions imposed by the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, multinational corporations are pushing a privatization agenda for healthcare which removes control of crucial health decisions and delivery systems from the public sphere, where it is subject to popular influence, and often removes access to healthcare altogether from poor people.

The delegates had an opportunity to passionately denounce the institutions of corporate globalization when a World Bank representative attended a session labeled "The World Bank Faces the People." Led by the Indian delegation, PHA attendees hooted and booed the Bank, chanting "Down, Down, World Bank, Down Down." They spoke with raw emotion of Bank projects which have displaced people from longstanding communities, destabilizing both societies and public health, and of Bank lending programs that pushed national healthcare systems in the direction of a corporate-dominated model.

Primary healthcare remains a top priority, the PHA concluded, but it was unlikely to be achieved broadly in the absence of fundamental transformations in the global political economy.

A "People's Charter for Health" issued by the PHA asserted that health is a human right and that "health and human rights should prevail over economic and political concerns," and it called for the provision of "universal and comprehensive primary health care, irrespective of people's ability to pay."

But the Charter also called for the cancellation of the Third World debt, major changes at the IMF, World Bank and WTO, effective regulation to control the activities of multinational corporations and controls on speculative international capital flows. It also includes provisions on the environment, war and violence.

The imperative of achieving macro-level transformations did not depress the delegates. There were more community health workers than professional policy advocates at the conference, and delegates from developing countries vastly outnumbered those from industrialized nations.

These delegates were able to relate their own successes to illustrate what can be achieved, despite enormous obstacles, with determination and organization.

A. Chintamani, a health worker from a low caste in India, explained how she learned to wear shoes to prevent hookworm - despite an expectation that people in her caste would go barefooted - and then became empowered to deliver care even to upper caste persons, who were forced to turn to her because she offered the best available care.

Delegates from Cuba related the island's stunning public health achievements - with many national health indicators, such as infant mortality levels, comparable to those in the United States - in the face of the U.S. trade embargo. The international audience cheered long and loud for the Cuban delegates - in appreciation of Cuba's accomplishments and in solidarity for its resistance to U.S. aggression.

Most heartening for many was the example provided by the PHA hosts. The meeting was held on the campus of Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK), a Bangladesh NGO that has constructed a hospital, university and generic drug factory. Putting the concept of primary healthcare into effect, GK has trained countless health workers - mostly women - to raise health standards in surrounding villages. It leads the way in supplying care in the wake of floods and other national emergencies in Bangladesh. GK pharmaceuticals, and its support for Bangladesh's progressive national drug program - which has weathered relentless attacks from multinational drug firms - have made essential medicines available to consumers throughout the country.

Organizers highlighted GK and other success stories to emphasize that it is not for lack of resources or knowledge that the world has failed to deliver on the promise of the Alma Alta declaration.

What is lacking, they believe, is political will, from the village to international level. "While governments have the primary responsibility for promoting a more equitable approach to health and human rights," the People's Health Charter concludes, it will require people's organizations to force them to meet this responsibility.

- Robert Weissman