Water

How We Lost Our Best Opportunity to Ensure Safer Dams

We failed to heed the advice of one of the most important reports. Now, dams being built follow no social or environmental standards at all, not even the World Bank's modest ones.

When Nelson Mandela heralded the release of the World Commission on Dams final report in a London speech on November 16, 2000, he congratulated its authors for delivering a socially and environmentally sensitive blueprint for dam-building and for providing a model of respectful negotiation among the many groups with a stake in dams. "You have shown us the way forward for dealing with such complex issues," he said.

The accomplishment seemed outsized, for dams are magnets for conflict. How could they not be? Their reservoirs are the world's largest manmade things, shifting so much weight that geophysicists believe they have slightly changed the velocity of the earth's rotation, the tilt of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational field. On the one hand, they generate so much electricity and irrigated water for agriculture that economic development has seemed inconceivable without them. On the other, they have produced vast disarray, displacing or impoverishing hundreds of millions of people and inflicting permanent damage on most of the world's 200-plus major river ecosystems.

Now, with a decade's perspective, Mandela's speech seems to mark the end of a more hospitable era, dating from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the World Trade Center, during which international cooperation on human rights and environmental issues seemed feasible. A few weeks later, the Supreme Court declared George Bush the U.S. president, and 10 months after that, violent Muslim fundamentalists toppled the World Trade Center. Both events shunted environmental and human rights concerns to the sidelines, and may have doomed prospects for the report's acceptance all by themselves. Yet unlike most issuances of similar international bodies, a decade later the report has not been forgotten; still frequently cited, it hovers over recent dam developments like a whispered reproach.

The commission was born out of the World Bank's frustration in building dams. By the mid-1990s, the Bank funded only an average of four dams a year, down from six or seven times as many a decade earlier. The evidence of dams' social and environmental destructiveness had by then become well-known, and dam opponents found success in forcing delays of large projects until they ceased being viable.

In hopes of producing an agreement that would placate opponents and open the way for more dam construction, the Bank reluctantly agreed to support an international commission that would investigate dams' performance and make recommendations on how to build them. Negotiators representing all major constituents in dam disputes agreed on the selection of 12 commissioners who embodied the full spectrum of views about dams' value, from a dam engineer and the chief executive of the world's largest supplier of hydroelectric generators to the planet's foremost anti-dam activist.

The commissioners ended up confounding the many industry observers who thought they could never reach a consensus. Over a two-and-a-half year period, the commission presided over the world's first comprehensive study of large dams' impacts. While acknowledging dams' role in producing a fifth of the world's electricity and enabling as much as a sixth of world food production, the commission found that dams had a "marked tendency" toward schedule delays and cost overruns, that they "led to the irreversible loss of species and ecosystems," and that they had forced the resettlement of 40 to 80 million people, almost invariably to vastly inferior sites. The commission also agreed on 26 recommendations that would have dramatically limited dams' negative consequences, among other ways by eliminating many ill-advised ones and requiring the "free, prior, and informed consent" of indigenous people facing relocation.

The Bank clearly got more of a commission than it wanted. It took a year even to issue a response, in which it touted its own weaker dam standards, not the commission's. It went on to proclaim a new "high-risk, high-reward" strategy, which entailed once more enthusiastically supporting the construction of large dams, as if the commission had never existed. Yet even though the Bank's dam funding jumped from zero in 1999 to a billion dollars in 2008, it was soon eclipsed by China, now the world's preeminent dam financier, and other emerging countries. The Bank lost its chance to help mold an internationally heeded standard of dam construction, for the dams now being built follow no social or environmental standards at all, not even the Bank's modest ones.

Equally disturbing, the onset of climate change has perversely promoted dam construction. Commission studies and others since have shown that many reservoirs emit greenhouse gases comparable in volume to those released by coal-powered power plants, yet the profoundly flawed cap-and-trade system set up by the Kyoto Protocol treats many dams as clean energy producers qualifying for carbon credits. The result is that about 1,700 dams, mostly in China, have already received cash bonuses under the program or are applying for them. Among them are environmentally disastrous dams for which the appellation "green" should apply only ironically. Dam building is now growing even though climate change is likely to disrupt natural hydrological systems so thoroughly that the assumptions guiding dam planning -- involving such factors as the timing and volume of precipitation and river flow -- are almost certain to be wrong. If they are, the dams will end up wastefully large or dangerously small. The now quite plausible prospect propelled by climate change and population growth of an empty Lake Mead in another decade or two ought to be understood as sober warning.

On top of this, researchers recently took up the previously unexamined question of how many people living downstream from dams have been affected by their construction, usually by losing something vital to their survival or livelihood such as fish or floodwater for recession agriculture. The researchers arrived at a "conservative estimate" that 472 million people -- one of every 14 people alive today -- have been affected. Keep in mind that this mind-boggling number doesn't include people living upstream from dams who are forced to relocate, a number that has increased by many millions since the commission made its 40-80 million estimate in 2000.

Partly because dams' current resurgence is occurring with minimal regard for their destructiveness, the commission report has endured as a benchmark, the only existing rigorous set of standards against which dam projects can be assessed. One indication of the report's standing is that despite its lack of official recognition, it still influences planning and construction of specific dams. Another is that the International Hydropower Association, the dam industry's leading trade group, has been moved to promote a rival protocol that would replace the commission's recommendations with a set of non-binding and therefore ineffectual "assessment tools." The protocol grants no rights to the hundreds of millions of people displaced and adversely affected by dams, downplays environmental concerns, and puts off consideration of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs because of the lack of "established methodology" for measuring them.

From the commission report to the IHA protocol, it's a long tumble, emblematic of the global shift toward corporate domination over the last decade: instead of a document created by independent actors, grounded in thorough research, and endorsed by one of the last century's towering moral leaders, the IHA is peddling a vaguely worded, self-serving instrument that hints at restraints on dam-building without providing any.

All this is happening as more bills for dams are coming due. The latest is the widening understanding that as dams age, their expense soars: last year the Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimated that the total cost of repairing the U.S.'s crumbling dam infrastructure amounts to $50 billion, money that no government is willing to spend. The IHA protocol points in precisely the wrong direction: what is needed most now is prompt development of efficient, environmentally benign electricity technologies and a profound shift toward water conservation and more water-efficient agriculture. Far from accelerating dam construction, the idea should be to hasten their replacement.

Jacques Leslie is the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and was named one of the top science books of the year by Discover Magazine.