Failing to make the dam grade | WWF

Failing to make the dam grade

Posted on 15 November 2005    
Construction is ongoing at the Melonares dam, despite uncertainties about how water from the dam will be transferred to Seville. Andalucia, Spain.
© WWF/WWF-Spain/F Fuentelsaz.

Gland, Switzerland – Dams are continuing to cause excessive social and environmental damage despite recommendations made by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), says WWF.

The report from the global conservation organization, To dam or not to dam? Five years on from the World Commission on Dams, looks at six dams under construction in the last five years, all of which fail to meet these recommendations.

The report shows that dams can damage, drown or even dry out wetlands, an important source of water. They also destroy fisheries and threaten endangered species such as Iberian lynx and jaguars. While promising cheaper power or water for better irrigation systems, dams can actually result in economic disruption, with electricity prices rising and many people displaced.

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

These recommendations aim to ensure that dams are economically and environmentally sustainable, by ensuring that 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.

In Belize, the US$30 million Chalillo Dam was meant to reduce electricity imports and lower electricity prices. Yet since its recent completion, local people have seen an average increase of 12 per cent in electricity prices while the dam has also flooded 1,000ha of pristine rainforest.

According to WWF, the US$650 million Ermenek Dam in Turkey, together with five other hydropower projects, could result in insufficient water flow to maintain the variety of wildlife that lives in the Göksu River delta, recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Meanwhile, the livelihoods of 50,000 people in Laos will suffer when water is diverted from the Nam Theun River as a result of the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, approved by the World Bank. Increased water flow into the Xe Bang Fai River will reduce fisheries and agricultural land.

The report also highlights OECD findings that Iceland’s economic policy, for which the Kárahnjúkar Dam is a flagship project, could cause upward pressure on inflation and interest rates. Elsewhere, WWF says that Spain’s Melonares Dam has failed to take account of other viable and cheaper alternatives to supply drinking water to the city of Seville. Also, Australia’s Burnett Dam is struggling to be economically viable and threatens the endangered Queensland lungfish.

Dams have already fragmented 60 per cent of major rivers worldwide and displaced up to 80 million people. Currently over 400 large dams are under construction worldwide and hundreds more are planned. Much is at stake, according to the report, as more ill-planned infrastructure will provoke further environmental damage and negative social impacts, especially for local communities.

“Bad dams and bad economics are apparently still alive and kicking five years after the WCD,” said report author Ute Collier. “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.”

• The World Commission on Dams was established in 1998 as an independent, international, multi-stakeholder process to address what had become one of the most controversial areas of infrastructure development. The dam debate had become increasingly polarized during the 1990s and one of the aims of the Commission was to bridge the gulf between the two camps and produce an independent assessment of the performance of dams. Furthermore, it was charged with developing internationally accepted standards, guidelines and criteria for decision-making in the planning, design, construction, monitoring operation and decommissioning of dams. On 16 November 2000, Nelson Mandela helped to launch the report of the WCD. The 380-page report addressed the benefits and impacts of dams or, in Mandela’s words, ‘one of the battlegrounds in the sustainable development arena’. The WCD was disbanded after the report was launched. 

• The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 146 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1469 wetland sites, totaling 128.9 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

For further information:
Lisa Hadeed, Communications Manager
WWF Global Freshwater Programme
Tel: +41 22 364 9030

Brian Thomson, Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9554

Construction is ongoing at the Melonares dam, despite uncertainties about how water from the dam will be transferred to Seville. Andalucia, Spain.
© WWF/WWF-Spain/F Fuentelsaz. Enlarge

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