Dams Generate a Reservoir of Controversy ; A Report Launched by Nelson Mandela Yesterday Calls for Radical Rethink on How to Build a Better Dam

By Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Dams Generate a Reservoir of Controversy ; A Report Launched by Nelson Mandela Yesterday Calls for Radical Rethink on How to Build a Better Dam


Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Of all mankind's efforts to harness nature for the greater good, none - from the Lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest to the ponderous Narmada running through central India - have proved so dangerously mixed a blessing as large dams.

The mighty symbols of modernity for some, harbingers of catastrophe for others, the huge dams that now block or divert more than half the world's rivers have brought with them far more than just the water and electricity they promised.

Often flooding poor peasants out of their homes so that wealthier town dwellers can have light and water, dams raise "issues of equity, governance, justice and power - issues that underlie the many intractable problems faced by humanity" in the words of a report issued Thursday.

The report, launched in London by former South African President Nelson Mandela, is the work of an international group of independent experts who have written a stinging indictment of the way large dams have been built over the past half century. But they also propose fairer and less disruptive ways of managing the planet's key resource - water - in the next century.

Mr. Mandela praised the World Commission on Dams report Thursday. "It is one thing to find fault with an existing system," he said. "It is another thing altogether, a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better."

The report finds that although dams "have made an important and significant contribution to human development ... in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits."

After two years of work around the world, the 12-member commission reached its conclusions unanimously - remarkable for a group that ranged from Goran Lindahl, head of the engineering giant ABB that has built many dams, to Mehda Patkar, a leading antidam activist.

Dam critics generally welcomed the report. "It vindicates a lot of the things we have been saying" says Patrick McCully, Campaigns Director for the International Rivers Network, who is part of the global movement that urged the commission's creation. "We are very pleased with the report, and we want its recommendations to be implemented."

Future dam projects, the report argues, must be governed by five core values: equity, efficiency, participatory decisionmaking, sustainability, and accountability. And better management of demand for water and electricity could reduce the need for new dams.

Suggestions include erecting more small-scale (micro-hydro) dams, bolstering conservation efforts, and expanding wind-and solar-power projects.

The reservoirs behind the 45,000 large dams built around the world so far have forced as many as 80 million people out of their homes, the commission estimates, more than half of them in India and China where titanic dams are still being built on the Narmada and Yangtze Rivers. …

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