Presentation by Saneeya Hussain

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The World Commission on Dams

(Saneeya Hussain, WCD's Senior Advisor on Stakeholder Consultations and Communications)

In response to escalating conflicts over the role of dams in development, dam proponents and opponents agreed in 1997 to establish an independent international commission. The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was created through a unanimous decision and was given a broad-based mandate to review the development effectiveness of large dams, to assess alternatives in energy and water resources management, and to develop internationally acceptable criteria and guidelines to guide future decision making on dams. The WCD published its report "Dams and Development - a New Framework for Decision Making" in November 2000.

The Commission's authority and credibility rested on the diversity of its Commissioners, a guiding theme throughout its inclusive, transparent and participatory work programme.

Factors that contributed to the legitimacy and independence of the WCD were: the multi-stakeholder selection process of the Commission members; the absence of any vested interests in its reporting structure; the hands-on experience of its Commissioners and Secretariat Staff; and the untied funding the WCD received from a broad base of 53 donors. The WCD accomplished the most comprehensive, global and independent review of dams from which it developed recommendations for future decision making.

The process was characterised by a knowledge-driven review, a multi-faceted analysis and an integrated assessment. Extensive negotiations within the Commission eventually led to a set of agreed recommendations. 

As its principal findings the Commission learned that dams have delivered considerable benefits, but that in too many cases the price paid to secure those benefits has been unacceptable. The WCD found a lack of systematic evaluation of dam projects, and considerable scope to improve performance. It found that the economic profitability of dams is elusive, involving many externalities. It also found that all too often impacts on people and ecosystems are unacceptable and avoidable; and that alternatives to dams do exist that are viable and acceptable - depending on the location. Finally, the Commission learned that the means to improve development outcomes do exist but are not yet common practice.

In recommending a new framework for decision making, the WCD proposed seven strategic ways to turn conflict into consensus:

Gain public acceptance; 

Assess options;

Address existing dams;

Sustain rivers and livelihoods;

Recognise entitlements and share benefits;

Ensure compliance;

Share rivers across boundaries.

In sum, the World Commission on Dams conducted the first, comprehensive review of the performance of large dams, focused on options and compliance, promoted a rights and risks approach to negotiate outcomes, showed that conflict is not inevitable, and through its own experience displayed that common ground can be reached.

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Contact Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds for further information.