Dams and development: A new framework for decision-making - A World Commission on Dams report
The big fight: Are dams a necessity of urbanisation? Or, Are they destroyers of Natural resourse?

This report by the World Commission on Dams begins by arguing that the debate about dams is a much broader issue and is important for everyone since it is a debate about the very meaning, purpose and pathways for achieving development. It is complex because the issues are not confined to the design, construction and operation of dams themselves, but include a range of social, environmental and political choices that define development.

Dams fundamentally alter rivers and the use of a natural resource, frequently entailing a reallocation of benefits from local riparian users to new groups of beneficiaries at a regional or national level. At the heart of the dams debate are fundamental issues of equity, governance, justice and power. The report argues that the main challenge lies in reconciling the competing needs between different groups of actors and provides a framework to deal with these fundamental issues in the dam debate.

Evidence indicates that although dams have undoubtedly made significant contributions to human kind and have had considerable benefits, an unacceptable and unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits in terms of social and environmental impacts leading to displacement of people, disadvantages to the communities downstream and the irreparable damage that it has had on the environment.

Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has also questioned the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives. This has given rise to a number of conflicts between the one who share the advantages of the dams against the ones who bear the risks associated with the construction of dams. 

A global review of dams indicates that, improving development outcomes in the future will require a  full knowledge and understanding of the benefits, impacts and risks of large dam projects to all parties. It will also require introduction of new voices, perspectives and criteria into decision-making, as well as processes that will build consensus around the decisions reached. This will fundamentally alter the way in which decisions are made and improve the development effectiveness of future decisions.

The report argues that core values that inform the understanding of these issues fall under five principal headings namely, equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability.

The report presents some key recommendations and guidelines for a policy framework that approaches the dam debate by building upon the recognition of human rights, right to development and the right to a healthy environment and can be helpful in translating the policy framework into practice. These key recommendations include:

  • Gaining public acceptance
  • Comprehensive options assessment
  • Addressing existing dams
  • Sustaining rivers and livelihoods
  • Recognising entitlements and sharing benefits
  • Ensuring compliance
  • Sharing rivers for peace, development and security

The Commission also identifies five critical decision points through which the key recommendations can be implemented that include:

  • For water and energy planning: decisions on preferred development plan
    • Needs assessment 
    • Selecting alternatives 
  • Decision making points where a dam emerges from this process as a preferred developmental alternative
    • Project preparation
    • Project implementation
    • Project operation
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