Protecting Rivers and Rights: The Promise of the World Commission on Dams

Protecting Rivers and Rights: The Promise of the World Commission on Dams

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April 16, 2011

The World Commission on Dams (WCD) report is still our best roadmap towards ensuring that future dams minimize social and environmental impacts, the legacy of existing dams are addressed, and affected people directly benefit from the projects. Watch this video, produced by International Rivers and EcoDoc Africa, to learn more about the promise of the WCD.

More than a decade after the World Commission on Dams (WCD) issued its groundbreaking report, Dams and Development, evidence continues to show that large dams are not sustainable or even rational sources of power unless they are developed within a framework that adheres to strict environmental and social standards.

The WCD’s report provides such a framework to ensure sustainability, protect basic human rights, and minimize environmental impacts. Principles espoused by the WCD include: conducting comprehensive options assessments; respecting the rights of affected communities by negotiating legally binding agreements and ensuring the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples; guaranteeing that affected communities are the first to benefit; fixing problems with existing projects before building new ones; providing for environmental flows to maintain downstream ecosystems and livelihoods; and requiring funded, enforceable compliance plans from developers.

As International Rivers explores in its publication, Protecting Rivers and Rights: The World Commission on Dams Recommendations in Action, a number of hydro projects have followed some key principles outlined by the WCD; however, in the past ten years, no single project has embodied the overall framework.

With projects like the Changuinola 1 Dam in Panama; the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Cambodia, the Merowe Dam in Sudan; the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, the Tipaimukh Dam in India, the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam in Burma and the Patuca dams in Honduras, it’s obviously time for that to change.

Hydro developers often become so enamoured by the prospects of a dam, that they ignore the overall costs.

As a direct consequence of this, today, nearly 66 per cent of the world’s 292 large river systems have been fragmented by dams and reservoirs.

In addition, roughly 472 million people have been negatively impacted by hydro development around the world, according to the 2010 report “Lost in Development’s Shadow: The Downstream Consequences of Dams“. Of that 472 million, International Rivers estimates that 40-80 million people have been directly displaced.

The UN’s Third Global Biodiversity Outlook further observes that freshwater species are disappearing at an alarming rate, thanks in part to hydro development. In fact, a study on freshwater fish by Harrison and Stiassny (1999) found that 71 per cent of all extinctions are caused by habitat alteration such that caused by building dams.

Freshwater ecosystems, while only accounting for 0.8 percent of Earth’s surface, are also more threatened than other ecosystems, according to the UN’s Biodiversity Outlook. The majority of the world’s population depend on freshwater environments for subsistence, drinking water and transportation.

In the coming years, Climate change will exacerbate the problems caused by hydro development, says International rivers. For instance, “Changing precipitation patterns and increased flooding and droughts will threaten dam safety, cause greater social and environmental damages, and undermine the viability of large-dam hydropower generation.”

At the same time, large-scale dams have failed to meet their production targets on numerous occasions. The WCD itself found that more than half of the hydropower and nearly half of the irrigation projects it studied while preparing their report, had under-performed.

Alternatives to large dams is another issues that developers routinely ignore. However, “There are often better alternatives to large dams, particularly for meeting the energy and water needs of the poor or other vulnerable communities,” says International Rivers. “These alternatives are increasingly economically viable and some are outpacing new dam developments. In 2009, for example, more wind than hydropower capacity was created globally, according to REN21’s Renewables 2010 Global Status Report.”

A 2010 article in Scientific American argued that it’s possible to meet all the world’s energy needs with wind, water and solar energy projects by 2030. “Less than 9% of this energy would come from hydropower, most of which is already built. Similarly, numerous examples from around the world have shown that it is possible to meet water needs with decentralized, small-scale approaches to water conservation, storage and supply at low cost and without destructive dams.”

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