To dam or not to dam? Five years on from the World Commission on Dams

Posted on 14 November 2005

Dams are continuing to cause excessive social and environmental damage despite recommendations made by the World Commission on Dams. The report  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.

On 16 November 2000, Nelson Mandela helped to launch the report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD),  indicating the importance attached to the issue of dams and development by one of the world’s greatest statesmen. 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’.

Now, five years on, as the dust has settled, we ask – what is the Commission’s legacy? Are fewer bad dams being built? Are benefits being shared with affected communities and are more effective environmental protection measures being taken?

This is a pertinent time to ask these questions as dams, in particular hydropower projects, have recently risen back to the top of decision-makers’ agendas. This year, the World Bank approved funding for the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project in Laos, its first major investment in this sector since the Bank announced in 2003 its intention to re-enter dams financing with a focus on ‘High Reward, High Risk’ projects.

Rising fossil fuel prices, growing energy needs, as well as the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change all have resulted in a renewed effort to develop the world’s hydropower potential. At the same time climate change is likely to increase the demand for water storage. While hydropower and other dams undoubtedly have a role to play in meeting growing energy and water needs, there is also much at stake as in the past too many projects have resulted in excessive environmental damage and negative social impacts, especially for local communities.

In this report, WWF takes stock of what has happened in the five years since the launch of the WCD report. We highlight six cases where governments and dam builders have failed to clean up their act. We also show a number of positive developments from around the world.

Overall, we find that the WCD recommendations are as important today for reducing the social and environmental damage caused by dams as they were five years ago. WWF is convinced that applying the WCD’s framework, adapted to individual country’s situations, will result in better decision-making and projects that have less impact.

To dam or not to dam? Five years on from the World Commission on Dams
To dam or not to dam? Five years on from the World Commission on Dams
© Ute Collier / WWF