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 IRN and the World Commission on Dams

The World Commission on Dams report turned five in 2005. IRN sponsored an international conference to mark the anniversary in November 2005 in Berlin, Germany.


What was the World Commission on Dams?
What were the WCD’s main findings?
What were the WCD’s recommendations?
The Creation of the World Commission on Dams:

What was the World Commission on Dams?

In response to the growing opposition to large dams, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was established by the World Bank and IUCN in 1998. Learn more about the formation of the WCD.

The Commission’s mandate was to:

  • review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development; and

  • develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.

The 12 Commissioners came from a variety of backgrounds, representing a broad spectrum of interests in large dams – including governments and non–governmental organisations, dam operators and grassroots people's movements, corporations and academics, industry associations and consultants.

The WCD relied on extensive public consultation and many background studies and submissions.

The Commission’s final report, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision–Making, was released in November 2000, and can be downloaded in English or Spanish (an overview of the report in available in nine languages).

Materials issued by IRN, which mark the release of the WCD Report, are available here on our website.

IRN’s Citizen’s Guide to the WCD has ideas for using the Commission’s report in struggles for justice and human rights.

What were the WCD’s main findings?

The WCD found that while "dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable... in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment." The WCD’s final report provides ample evidence that large dams have failed to produce as much electricity, provide as much water, or control as much flood damage as their supporters originally predicted.

Learn more about the WCD’s findings.

What were the WCD’s recommendations?

The Commission provides a new framework for decision–making on water and energy projects based on recognising the rights of, and assessing the risks to, all stakeholders. Those who would be adversely affected should participate in the planning and decision–making process and have a share in project benefits.

The Commission’s main recommendations include the following:

  • No dam should be built without "demonstrable acceptance" of affected people, and without free, prior and informed consent of affected indigenous and tribal peoples.

  • Comprehensive and participatory assessments of people’s water and energy needs, and different options for meeting these needs, should be developed before proceeding with any project.

  • Priority should be given to maximising the efficiency of existing water and energy systems before building new projects.

  • Mechanisms should be developed to provide reparations, or retroactive compensation, for those who are suffering from existing dams, and to restore damaged ecosystems.

The Creation of the World Commission on Dams
(extracted from Chapter 1 of IRN’s Citizen’s Guide)

Activists Call for Independent Review

The origins of the WCD lie in the many struggles waged by dam–affected communities and NGOs around the world, in particular those targeting World Bank–funded projects. In June 1994, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the World Bank, more than 2,000 organizations signed the Manibeli Declaration, calling for the World Bank to establish an "independent comprehensive review of all Bank funded large dam projects." Anti–dam activists believed that an independent review of the projected and actual performance and impacts of dams would confirm many of their arguments if carried out in an honest and rigorous manner, and would help to promote more appropriate investments.

At the end of 1994, the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department (OED) announced that it would undertake a review of large dams the Bank had funded. The review was completed in 1996, but never publicly released. Although it contains some criticisms of the World Bank’s record, on the whole it sided with the Bank and the dam industry, concluding that "overall, most large dams were justified." IRN prepared a critique of a leaked copy of the review, which argued that the OED had seriously exaggerated the benefits of the dams under review, underplayed their impacts, and displayed a deep ignorance of the social and ecological effects of dams.

Critics then stepped up pressure on the Bank to commission a truly independent dam review. In March 1997, participants at the first international conference of dam–affected people, held in Curitiba, Brazil, called for an immediate moratorium on all dam building until a number of conditions were met. One of these conditions was that an international, independent commission be established "to conduct a comprehensive review of all large dams financed or otherwise supported by international aid and credit agencies, and its policy conclusions implemented." Read the Curitiba Declaration.

The WCD is Born

Shortly after the Curitiba conference, the World Bank and IUCN invited around 40 representatives from the dam industry, governments, academia, NGOs and dam–affected people’s movements to a workshop in Gland, Switzerland, to discuss a second phase of the OED’s 50–dam review. Before the Gland workshop, 49 NGOs from 21 countries wrote to World Bank President James Wolfensohn to demand the World Bank reject the conclusions of its OED review and to commission "a comprehensive, unbiased and authoritative review" of World Bank lending for dams.

At the workshop, participants agreed on the need for an independent commission to review large dams in general, and not just those funded by the World Bank. The commission would look both backward at the "development effectiveness" of existing dams, and forward to how water and energy projects should be planned and built in the future. IRN and other NGOs welcomed the Gland agreement.

Some representatives of the dam industry agreed because they thought it would confirm their strongly held beliefs about the great benefits of dams. Others realised that their industry was in crisis and believed that they needed to learn from past mistakes if they wanted to win public acceptance and funds for future dams.

The Gland workshop mandated the World Bank and IUCN to oversee the establishment of the World Commission on Dams, in close consultation with those present in Gland. The process was highly contentious and several times both NGOs, the World Bank, and industry representatives came close to withdrawing from the negotiations. The main disagreement was in the selection of commissioners, in particular because of the reluctance of the World Bank and IUCN to appoint representatives of dam–affected people’s movements.

Agreement was reached on the mandate and composition of the WCD in February 1998. Professor Kader Asmal, formerly South Africa’s Minister for Water Affairs and an expert on international human rights law, was to chair the commission. Lakshmi Chand Jain, a diplomat and economist from India, was to serve as the vice–chair. The other 12 Commission members represented a broad spectrum of those with an interest in large dams, rivers, and energy – governments and dam operators, corporations and industry associations, consultants and academics, NGOs and grassroots movements. All members served in their individual capacity and not as representatives of their institutions or constituencies.

The group that had overseen the Commission’s establishment was enlarged to serve as a consultative body and named the WCD Forum. The 68–member Forum met three times between 1998 and 2000 to provide input into the work of the Commission. Twenty affected people’s groups and NGOs were represented in the Forum.

For more information on the formation of the WCD see "A Watershed in Global Governance? An Independent Assessment of the World Commission on Dams", published by the World Resources Institute.

A Summary of the WCD’s Findings
(extracted from Chapter 3 of IRN’s Citizens’ Guide)

The WCD report is the product of numerous political negotiations and compromises. While there are plenty of inclusions, omissions and compromises in the report for NGOs and affected people to criticise, Dams and Development is on the whole a strongly worded and coherent report. In the report’s Executive Summary, the WCD states:

"We believe there can no longer be any justifiable doubt about the following:

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

  • In too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.

  • Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives.

  • By bringing to the table all those whose rights are involved and who bear the risks associated with different options for water and energy resources development, the conditions for a positive resolution of competing interests and conflicts are created.

  • Negotiating outcomes will greatly improve the development effectiveness of water and energy projects by eliminating unfavorable projects at an early stage, and by offering as a choice only those options that key stakeholders agree represent the best ones to meet the needs in question."

This section contains a brief summary of the WCD’s findings. A more complete summary is contained in Chapter 6 of the Citizens’ Guide)

Social costs of dams are devastating and largely ignored

The WCD found that 40–80 million people have been resettled for dams. Indigenous people and women have suffered disproportionately from the impacts of dams while often being excluded from the benefits. Resettlement has caused extreme economic hardship, community disintegration, and an increase in mental and physical health problems. Millions of people living downstream of dams have also suffered devastating impacts as a result of disease, altered river flow, and loss of natural resources such as fisheries.

The benefits of dams have largely gone to the rich while the poor bear the costs. Further, the WCD found that these costs were frequently neither addressed nor accounted for.

Environmental costs of dams are huge, unanticipated and hard to mitigate

The WCD found that large dams have had profound and irreversible environmental impacts including extinction of species, loss of forest, wetlands and farmland. An estimated 60% of the world’s large rivers are fragmented by dams and diversions. The WCD states that large dams have led to "the loss of aquatic biodiversity, upstream and downstream fisheries and the services of downstream floodplains, wetlands and riverine estuarine and adjacent marine ecosystems." Negative environmental impacts were not predicted and efforts to mitigate these impacts have failed.

The WCD found that 20 percent of the earth’s land which is irrigated by large dams is lost to salinisation and waterlogging, and that 5 percent of the world’s freshwater evaporates from reservoirs.

Dams emit greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases are responsible for changing the earth’s climate. Reservoirs emit greenhouse gases due to the rotting of flooded vegetation and soils and of organic matter flowing into the reservoir from its catchment. The WCD quotes an estimate that perhaps between 1 to 28 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from reservoirs. In some cases emissions from a reservoir can be equal or greater than those from a coal or gas–fired power station. Emissions are highest in shallow, tropical reservoirs.

Dams often fail to provide projected benefits

Realized benefits are often lower than the projected benefits on which decisions to build a dam are based. Specifically, the WCD found the following:

  • Power – more than half the hydropower dams reviewed generated less power than projected

  • Water supply – 70 percent did not reach targets

  • Irrigation – almost half have under–performed

  • Flood control – dams have increased human vulnerability to floods

  • Multi–purpose dams particularly fell short of targets.

Dams have had poor economic performance

The WCD found that on average, large dams have been at best only marginally economically viable. The average cost overrun of dams is 56 percent. This means that when a dam is predicted to cost $1 billion, it ends up costing $1.56 billion. Half of the dams surveyed had a construction delay of one year or more.

Alternatives are available but not treated as equal contenders

The WCD found that many different options for meeting energy, water and food needs currently exist – including demand–side management, supply efficiency, and new supply options. Alternatives to dams do exist, and are often more sustainable and cheaper. The WCD recommended that alternatives to large dams be treated with equal emphasis in the planning process.

Bias towards large dams

The WCD found that large dams have been a long–time favorite of politicians, government officials, dam building companies and development banks. They have provided opportunities for corruption and favoritism and have skewed decision–making away from cheaper and more effective options.

  latest additions  
IRN Welcomes New Water Policy from Major International Bank
HSBC is the first major private bank to endorse the WCD. Over the past five years a growing number of governments, UN agencies, and companies have endorsed the WCD’s approach. Much of the big dam industry, and the World Bank, remain strongly opposed to key parts of the WCD recommendations.
 Additional Information

For more information, please contact:

    Patrick McCully, International Rivers Network
    E–mail: patrick@irn.org
    Phone: +1 510–848–1155