Opinion 5

The World Commission on Dams Report

After much hype the WCD Report is out. Does it live up to expectations?
Yes!
What happens now?

One of the highlights of my career in water policy development in Africa was sitting on the roadside somewhere between Koste and Khartoum in Sudan a couple of years ago in the middle of a pitch black night with a puncture after an eventful three-day visit to North Kordufan State. While we were ruminating in the blackness, the chairperson of the National Water Policy Committee remarked "You know, if we speak to enough people, the policy will write itself." We had just spent three days speaking to state officials, NGOs, villagers, farmers and local businessmen about water. I had the same sense of "rightness" at the meeting to launch the report of the World Commission on Dams in London on Thursday 16 November 2000.

The Commission, and especially the Secretariat, must be congratulated. Whilst a report the size and complexity of which was presented on Thursday needs time to read and absorb, even at the outset it is clear that we have something of real value here. I have been very interested to see what line the Commission would take on the very difficult issues raised in its mandate. How would the seemingly irreconcilable extremes in the debate be addressed? How could we get beyond the dams vs no dams, the environment vs development and the people vs rivers logjam which the debate has found itself in over the past few years? The way the discussion has been framed over the past few years has lead to conflict and polarisation. What was needed was a new framework for the discussion and this is what the World Commission on Dams has provide us with.

Whilst there is a need to "read, mark and inwardly digest" the considerable contents of the report, the framework of "recognition of rights" and "assessment of risks" provides a new way of approaching the debate. The Commission does not trash all dams out of hand and recognises the important contribution which dams and dam builders have made to development, whilst at the same time recognising the enormous damage which has also been done. The new framework for decisions which the report provides needs careful consideration by all concerned. Taking the recommendations seriously will have far reaching implications with regards to how things are done. If anything is to change the concepts need to be politically embraced, enshrined in legislation and enforced.

A conceptual paradigm shift of this nature will not convince everyone, in fact many will not understand it at all. For the private sector and engineering types in general (and I can say this as an engineer) is likely that the real significance of the commission's report will go largely unnoticed. Let us be real, the private sector will do what they get paid to do - whatever they engage in will always only be a means to an end - shareholder profits. The only way in which to change how they do business is to change the rules by which they get paid and then to ensure compliance with the rules.

 

In reviewing the press coverage of the Commission's report over the past few days, I am concerned that the anti-dams lobby has also missed the point. The Commission's report was not an outright victory for either side, it was a victory for Reason. It does not say that all dams are bad and that all dam construction should cease, it provides a new framework for decision-making. The Commission's report is a challenge to all fundamentalists, both anti- and pro, that the world is not black or white and that the real challenge in civilised society is negotiating the middle ground.

Two concluding remarks:

Perhaps the Commission's report provides us with a framework for more than just the dams debate but for the development debate as a whole. The rights-based development discussion is not new but it has had a hard time penetrating the collective conscience of the decision makers. Perhaps this provides the moral content and the intellectual rigour which was missing earlier in the year at other international water meetings. "Poverty eradication" in itself is insufficient as the current development mantra, perhaps "growth with equity" would suit us better, if we really understand what equity means.

Undoubtedly in my mind the unsung heroes of the Dam Commission are the Secretariat. They have collectively achieved an enormous amount over the past two years. Particular congratulations need to go to Achim Steiner, WCD Secretary-General and an ex-officio Commissioner.

Well done!