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A Damned Mission?: Some reflections on the World Commission on Dams

Ranjit Dwived

Institute of Social Studies, 2502 LT, The Hague, The Netherlands

Its almost been a year since the demand of the global network of environmental NGOs, human rights organisations and people’s movements against dam related displacement for an ‘independent commission’ articulated in the Declaration of Curitiba in 1997 to review all major dams in the world, has been met. The "World Commission on Dams" (WCD) with initial access to over 8 million dollars has been formed with a two year mandate to review experiences with past projects, assess the developmental effectiveness of these projects and determine their future. As a unique global commission, the WCD has a place for all ‘voices’ that have participated, some feebly, some clamourously, in the great dam debate of the 1990s. Its twelve commissioners represent hydro-power companies and representatives of affected people, governmental organisations and NGOs, dam engineers and experts on social engineering. In that light alone it would be somewhat simplistic to characterise the WCD as an ‘anti-Dam Commission’ although the fact remains that a majority of its twelve commissioners have indeed been known for having adopted, endorsed or subtly encouraged the ‘no-dam’ position in the past. Nonetheless without reflecting on the power and position of the ‘behind-the-scene’ players vis-a-vis the mandate of the WCD, any a priori association of the WCD with the anti-dam position will be premature and a partial view.

To delve a little to the very formation of the WCD, the key role in bringing the different voices together under one platform was played by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union better known as the IUCN. The former is the largest multilateral donor of large dams world-wide. The Bank has to date funded more than 500 large dams in 92 countries with a financial investment totalling US $ 50 billion (1992 dollar). While its loan recovery is independent of the performance of these projects, the Bank has high stakes in ensuring that dam funding resumes its lost smoothness. The IUCN on its part is a unique global network of over 850 registered members representing states, government agencies and NGOs. It works closely with multilateral and bilateral aid agencies having direct connections to dam building. However, some of its affiliated groups, particularly NGO networks, have been involved actively in the various ‘no dam’ campaigns. Considering its professed goal of conserving biodiversity, the IUCN has little or no expertise in issues related to large dams unless of course we explain away the entire set of dam related conflicts as loss of diversity. Derivatively, its assumed role as a broker in the conflicts around dams may be related to its previous experiences in coalition building and partnerships between governments and non-governmental agencies but nonetheless its interests remain pretty ambiguous as it most certainly does not represent the environmental lobby that opposes large dams. Perhaps not surprisingly, the secretary-general of the WCD is a senior policy adviser of the IUCN.

One may argue that neither the World Bank nor the IUCN are, so to speak, impartial players. But nonetheless their joint efforts at conflict resolution are to be commended as the dam debate had indeed reached a point where each side - those opposing and those supporting - habitually parroted their positions. The anti-dam network is a step ahead in this parroting, having at its disposal what may be called a ‘standard environmental narrative’ on large dams. Imagine a big dam anywhere in the world today and the anti-dam network will soon be telling you how that dam is going to cause salinity, water logging, siltation, adverse impact in the downstream area, the catchment area, the command area, on public health and on flora and fauna. In fact in some specific cases, the opposition to dams has been activated first on these ‘environmental’ grounds followed by the NGO networks scurrying to locate ‘local affected people’ if any in these projects. The significance of the environmental narrative is that it is not as is often projected a construction and a product of (a global coalition) the affected people, but of well placed well meaning environmentalists and activists engaged in advocacy work on behalf of mother earth. Some of the national level networks like CRAB in Brazil or the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in India, though not in this league, seem not to be too distant as they consider all large dams as part and parcel of a political economy in which rich corner developmental benefits and pass on the risks and costs to the poor. 

Consider the movement against the Narmada Dams in India, whose representatives have actively participated in the formation of the WCD and whose leader is in fact one of the commissioners. Surely it would be a bit a naive to assume that the NBA representative is sitting at the WCD to convince and persuade her colleague commissioners (among whom are representatives of multi-national hydro-power companies) of the ‘alternative development imaginary’ that the NBA so assiduously projects in its campaign against large dams and other mega infrastructure projects in India. Forget about the hydro-power company, one does not quite see some NGO representatives of the North sitting as Commissioners finding such a radical resolution of dam-related conflicts palatable since the alternative imaginary constitutes a wholesome package: small projects, local community participation and control, indigenous knowledge, anti-consumerist proclivity and limited wants, a model more befitting Buddhist economics in a Gandhian polity. One may or may not share the NBA’s imagination of a world without big dams and one with hundreds and thousands of micro-projects that neither displace people nor adversely affect the environment and remain under the control of local communities. But those following its struggle will perhaps agree with me that the NBA has not had any spectacular success in garnering a critical political mass for the movement for ‘alternative development’. Its success has been far more significant in making dam-systems publicly accountable. It is in this context that the NBA being a part of the WCD makes sense although one has to perhaps also acknowledge that its participation in this body symbolises a climb down from the more radical position articulated in the Manibeli Declaration of 1994 where the NBA and its regional and global allies stood for the withdrawal of the World Bank from all large dams and asked the World Bank to waive all dam related loans made to the developing world.

What the NBA, the anti-dam network and their standard environmental narrative will actually achieve at the end of the day remains to be seen. Going by the mandate of WCD, one is tempted to take a rather pessimistic view that for two years, the ‘two great contending groups’ - those supporting and those opposing - will mobilise their respective clientele to reiterate their all too familiar positions without achieving much in terms of conflict resolution. Imagine a world body which confronts ‘two truths’, which in two years is expected to generate a minimal consensus around issues ranging from hydrological estimates to cultural diversity, financial appraisal methods to public policy on resettlement, civil engineering to river basin management, environmental impact to institutional settings the knowledge of which are representative of 35,000 large dams. Add to this the fact that the research activities need to be inclusive and participatory and that the findings and recommendations be reasonably acceptable to all stake-holders and there seem enough reasons for the pessimist to carouse. 

That the WCD has to cross numerous hurdles to achieve a ‘win-win’ and not a zero-sum situation is an understatement. However, three factors one of which is incidental, arouse hope. First, the leadership available to the WCD through its chairperson Prof. Kader Asmal, Minister for Water Resources and Forestry in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet. There could not have been a better person available to mediate conflicting and competing interests around dams especially considering the highly acclaimed reforms carried out under his leadership in South African water management policies. The availability of Dr. L.C. Jain, well acquainted with conflict negotiations around large dams as vice-chair, is an added benefit. 

Second, is the WCD’s broad-based constitution. Both dam-builders and dam busters are destined to dialogue and debate for two years and the hope here is that they will move from restating their positions to identifying the interests they represent so that as in all conflict mediation exercises, there will be some mutual give and take towards a constructive outcome. The fear here is with regard to the role, position and contribution of state actors in the developing world who are a major pro-dam constituency. Barring Prof. Asmal’s leadership, this constituency hardly has any representation in the WCD and a lot would depend on the proclivity of state actors. If the general feeling is that the state can be sidelined in a dialectics of the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ then it is rather a misplaced one.

Third, is the opportunity for participatory research that the WCD’s mandate could provide as its juggernaut moves ahead in the two years. It provides the back drop for a quest of knowledge around the many issues concerning large dams and more profitable alternatives. Students, researchers, policy makers and society at large will have a rich body of data to gather, analyse and interpret. While this research agenda is itself a cause of hope, one needs to be wary of the agenda being strictly monitored or hijacked by a bunch of consultants, whose sole preoccupation is to prepare guidelines and standards for improvements. The research of the WCD should be as much basic as applied and must focus as much on the power differentials of actors around dams as on issues concerning dams themselves. Let it also be known that the research agenda of the WCD may well function basically as a lubricant, smoothing over inevitable friction in dam projects. All opposition and resistance to dam projects will then be negotiated and/or stalemated at the level of research simply because of the WCD’s command over research resources. 

Recent events have proven that the point of view of the (developing) state, no matter how pro-dam it structurally is needs to be accommodated much more seriousness than has been the case. The WCD needs to make significant efforts to convince this constituency that it is not an "anti-dam commission". The cancellation of the proposed South Asian public hearing of the WCD to be held in India in the month of September is a case in point. But first to highlight the flawed basis of the public hearing itself. 

The public hearing was to mark the beginning of the WCD’s tryst with a broad range of interested parties and constituencies. The issues to be debated include (a) planning and implementation of large dams and alternatives (b) social, environmental, economic, financial impacts and issues related to large dams and alternatives (c) options for sustainable water and energy resource management and development (d) options for decision-making processes including participatory approaches (e) evaluations of decision-making and institutional structures and capacities and (f) assessments of value and effectiveness of existing criteria and guidelines. Those familiar with the dam debate may agree that this agenda is actually too broad to serve the basis of any meaningful articulation of core knowledge. Clearly, the impression that one gets is that the WCD wanted to begin its lessons with a clean slate. Much research is already available in these areas in South and South-east Asia and it would have been better for the WCD secretariat to do its homework well and to provide its commissioners with the necessary core knowledge rather than rushing with an ‘all encompassing’ public event. The public hearing could then have had a more specific agenda addressing clearly delineated target groups. Instead, with scores of panels and hundreds of papers spread over two days on a very broad range of issues, the South Asia public hearing had all the makings of a jamboree.

Nonetheless, the proposed public hearing had to be cancelled as the Indian government reverted its earlier decision to co-operate with the WCD. The latter appeared strongly inclined to cover the controversial Narmada Projects and had asked the Indian government and the government of Gujarat to facilitate field visits of the WCD commissioners. This was a start that was tactically wrong and strategically flawed. Minimally speaking, in a situation where large dams are strongly associated with state interests it requires thorough and transparent negotiation to convince the state that such interests will be addressed if not accommodated. But when the most prestigious project of a state is singled out as a subject of scrutiny, the suspicion level becomes higher. And while we can all join the global network and condemn the Indian government for its undemocratic attitude, few questions do remain: will the WCD at the end of its two years tenure achieve anything beyond recommending toothless rules and principles? And which actor will the WCD rely on, if not the state, to implement the changes and recommendations it is expected to make in policies and planning procedures? To that end, do we simply rue over ‘undemocratic attitudes’ of actors or is there a need to invest some time and energy towards ensuring that appropriate institutional basis exist so that dam-systems become human and environment friendly, if not disappear, in future. 

Some related publications and presentations by the author (includes forthcoming ones). For copies please send email to <

1999 "Displacement, Risks and Resistance: Local Perceptions and Actions on the Sardar Sarovar (Gujarat), India", Development and Change, Vol. 30(1) January.

1998 "Environmental Movements in the South: Theories and Prospects" presented at the XIV World Congress of Sociology, Research Committee 47, Montreal, Canada. 

1998 "Meeting the Challenge: Some Reflections on Participatory Research Framework on Social Policy and Resettlement Issues for the World Commission on Dams", Mimeo; versions submitted to Working Paper Series, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands and to the Economic and Political Weekly for consideration.

1998 "Resisting Dams and ‘Development’: Contemporary Significance of the Campaign against the Narmada Projects in India", European Journal of Development Research Vol 10 (2). 

1997 "Why Some People Resist and Others Do Not: Risks, Interests and Collective Action at the Local Level in the Sardar Sarovar Project", Working Paper Series No 265, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

1997 "People’s Movements in Environmental Politics: A Critical Analysis of the Save Narmada Movement in India", Working Paper Series No. 242, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

1997 "Parks, People and Protest: The Mediating Role of Environmental Action Groups", Sociological Bulletin, Vol 46 (2)

1996 "Resisting Development?: Profile of A New Social Movement in India", State-Society Relations Paper Nr. 96/97-2, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

1996 "Parks, People and Protest: Some Observations on the Mediating Role of Grassroots Environmental Action Groups in Resource Conflicts", Working Paper Series No.228, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

1995 "Water Distribution Strategies in and Conflicts over the Sardar Sarovar Project" presented at the Workshop on ‘Devolving Responsibilities for Water Management upon Users’, Sanders Institute, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

1994 "Large Dams as Contested Terrain: Resource Struggles over the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat, India", State-Society Relations Paper Nr. 94/95-4, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

1997 Tom Brass (ed.) (1995) "New Farmers’ Movements in India", Essex, Frank Cass, Development and Change Vol 28 (2), Review. 

1997 Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha (1995) "Ecology and Equity: the Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India", New York and London, Routledge, Development and Change Vol 28 (1), Review. 

1996 Amita Baviskar (1995) "In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley", Delhi, Oxford University Press, Sociological Bulletin Vol 45 (2), Review. 

1989 Ramachandra Guha (1989) "The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Changes and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas", Delhi, Oxford University Press, Sociological Bulletin Vol 38 (2), Review.

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