Happy Birthday, World Commission on Dams!
The Commission proposed a new framework for decision-making, which avoided simply pitting economic against social and environmental interests. It presented innovative recommendations on how best to assess available needs and options in the energy and water sectors, integrate the various interests from the beginning of the planning process, and respect the rights of all parties whose interests are at stake. Most importantly, the Commission proposed that affected people should become active parties at the negotiating table, not just passive victims or beneficiaries of dam projects.
“Where rights compete or conflict, negotiations conducted in good faith offer the only process through which various interests can be legitimately reconciled”, the WCD report suggests. The Commissioners, who represent very different interests in the big dams debate, showed through their own example how negotiations and dialogue conducted in good faith can produce innovative solutions.
embraced by international organizations and environmental groups and by some government agencies, banks and companies. In countries such as South Africa, Nepal, Germany and Sweden, governments and civil society groups adapted the recommendations to their national contexts through dialogue processes. The European Union decided that hydropower projects that sell carbon credits on the European market would have to respect the WCD framework. On the other hand the dam industry, the World Bank and many dam-building governments claimed that the new approach was too time-consuming and complicated.
During the last 10 years, the rights-based approach to development has found support beyond the dams sector. In September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with 144 votes to four. The Declaration recognized that indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior informed consent regarding any projects “affecting their lands or territories”, and in particular projects which require their relocation. In countries such as India, Brazil, Burma and China, a disproportionate share of dam projects affects indigenous peoples. Their right to free, prior informed consent has also been recognized by the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and other international bodies. Even the dam industry’s new Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol recognizes consent as “proven best practice”.
Just as importantly, the WCD framework has proven its value in practice. A survey conducted by the UN Environment Programme found that many governments have used WCD recommendations when revising their water and energy laws, and in specific projects. The South African government, whose water minister had chaired the Commission, used the WCD recommendations to prepare an innovative program to share the benefits of the Maguga Dam with the communities affected by it. The communities participated in preparing the program, and have escaped the fate of impoverishment that has beset so many dam-affected people.
I was present when the World Commission on Dams was conceived, and when Nelson Mandela delivered the final report in London. I had the privilege to get to know the Commissioners as people of the highest integrity, who came up with an innovative approach through good faith negotiations. The time for a rights-based approach to development has come, and the WCD report offers great guidelines on how to turn it into practice. Happy Birthday, World Commission on Dams!
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard