Dams and Development Harnessing Collective Energies. (Notes from the Chair)

By Asmal, Kader | UN Chronicle, September-November 2001 | Go to article overview

Dams and Development Harnessing Collective Energies. (Notes from the Chair)


Asmal, Kader, UN Chronicle


On 16 November 2000 in London, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) launched "Dams And Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making"--a report which will have a profound impact not only on the future role of the $42-billion dam industry, but on how to develop and manage water and energy resources in the new millennium.

Within 24 hours, WCD Chairman Kader Asmal and Dr. Klaus Toepfer, Director-General of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), met with UN Member States and presented the report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. That same day, across the Atlantic, others from the Commission presented their key findings to 300 investors, bankers, insurers and international environmental monitors at the UNEP Financial Services Initiative in Frankfurt, Germany. United Nations agencies--especially UNEP, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the World Health Organization--and the UN Foundation had been "present at the creation" of the WCD, playing distinct and critical supporting roles in its comprehensive, global work programme, while allowing it the independence to establish credibility and legitimacy among all constituents. Some of these UN partners appear ready to be "present at the implementation" to ensure the report makes a difference in institutions and individual lives.

Why? Because so much is at stake, because the model for dams could work for other contentious issues, because the report is a direct response to Mr. Annan's Millennium Conference challenge, and because the United Nations is uniquely positioned to oversee negotiations that come out of the WCD framework. But to understand the nature of those potential negotiations, one must first appreciate the origins of the debate.

Dams have been built for thousands of years-- to manage flood waters, harness water as hydropower, supply water for drinking and the industry, and irrigate fields. Today, there are over 45,000 large dams in the world; one third of all countries rely on hydropower for more than half their electricity supply, and large dams generate 19 per cent of electricity overall. In addition, some 30 to 40 per cent of the 271 million hectares irrigated worldwide rely on dams.

But the last fifty years have also highlighted the performance and the social and environmental impacts of large dams. They have fragmented and transformed the world's rivers, while global estimates suggest that 40 million to 80 million people have been displaced by reservoirs. Dams have become one of the most hotly contested issues in sustainable development today. The report is the culmination of an unprecedented global public policy process over a two-year period to provide consensus to what had become an increasingly bitter and divisive debate.

In developing the report, the WCS, made up of twelve very diverse commissioners from all sides of the debate, from engineering company executives to anti-dam activists, received 947 submissions and conducted detailed reviews of eight large dams and country reviews in India and China. A survey of 125 large dams was also undertaken, along with 17 thematic reviews on social, environmental and economic issues, alternatives to dams, and governance and institutional processes. On the day of the launch, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson spoke of the great service the WCD has done for the international community "through the compilation of closely argued analysis and concrete recommendations (providing) us all with a road map for moving forward in our shared responsibility to make all human rights a reality for all people".

Based on this extensive knowledge and compelling evidence, the Commission found that:

* Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable;

* Large dams have, however, demonstrated a marked tendency towards schedule delays and cost overruns, as well as often falling short of physical and economic targets, such as predicted water and electricity services;

* Large dams have led to the loss of forests and wildlife habitat and of aquatic biodiversity of upstream and downstream fisheries. …

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