Dams, their dark sides and new ways to make decisions

Dams, their dark sides and new ways to make decisions

By Efrén Diego Domingo

In the opinion of the World Commission on Dams, there is no justified doubt that dams have contributed in an important and significant way to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable on the one hand and, on the other hand, in too many cases, an unacceptable and unnecessary price has been paid to obtain these benefits, especially in social and environmental terms


Before entering the topic, let's look at the position of those who promote dams and those who oppose them.

What the promoters of the dams say is that there are energy demands, that the hydroelectric plants provide cheaper energy and are not polluting, they generate development, employment, electrification of the communities, energy to export, that they are going to see projects, that they are going to lift people out of poverty, etc.

In contrast, those who oppose dams point to the adverse impacts of dams, such as the burden of indebtedness, over-cost, displacement and impoverishment of people, the destruction of important ecosystems and fishery resources, and the inequitable distribution of costs and benefits. [1]

To exemplify this last position, I cite some examples that have been made public in other countries:

• “The woman made up of a warrior nimbly lowered her machete. The curved blade came to a stop millimeters from the shoulder of José Antonio Muniz Lopes, the chief engineer of the Brazilian electricity company Eletronorte. Muniz calmed down as Tuira, the Kayapó woman, leaned the flat part of the machete against her face. "You are a liar" - he said about to spit it out. “We don't need electricity. Electricity is not going to give us our food. We need our rivers to run freely - our future depends on it. We need our forests to hunt and gather. We don't need your dam ”. [2]

• “Four years ago, the La Parota project has provoked strong opposition among inhabitants of the affected populations, who argue that the construction of the dam would force the displacement of 25 thousand people –of which more than 70 percent are dedicated to agricultural activities–, would flood 17,300 hectares, would cause the disappearance of the water tables that supply water to the port of Acapulco and would cause, with it, a serious environmental deterioration. As a result of official attempts to impose the project, the peasants have faced threats of expropriation of land by the federal government, at the same time that they have denounced a dubious process of legitimizing the work through the realization of fraudulent ejidal and communal assemblies , and with a constant campaign of government harassment against opponents. The conjunction of these elements has expounded social tension and violence, always latent in various regions of Guerrero due to inequality and marginalization, and this circumstance has resulted in the death of three ejidatarios, as well as injuries and arrests because of the clashes. [3]

• “José Venus Hernández Nicanor, a member of the Cecop leadership, [4] warned that the community members will not allow construction. "Don't be stubborn, the people have already agreed that the dam will not pass, so the governor, President Felipe Calderón or whoever may say it, because we as peasants have already set our position, and that is that our lands are not for sale."

• On April 20, a Buena Fe Community Consultation was held in the Municipality of Ixcán, Quiché (Guatemala) on the construction of hydroelectric plants, exploration and oil exploitation in this municipality. 21,155 people participated in the Consultation, of which 13,353 are of legal age and 8,802 are minors. The results of the consultation are very clear: 1,829 people (8.65%) showed up for the SI; 18,992 people (89.73%) and express abstention 344 (1.63) showed NO. [5]

For precisely because of the emergence of these conflicts around dams, the World Commission on Dams was established in 1992.

II. The World Commission on Dams

The World Commission on Dams (WRC) was established by the World Bank (WB) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) with the aim of reviewing the effectiveness of large dams in driving development and evaluating alternatives for developing water resources and energy and develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, diagnosis, construction, operation, monitoring and dismantling of dams.

III. Opinion of the WRC

The Commission is of the opinion that there is no justified doubt that dams have contributed in an important and significant way to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable on the one hand and, on the other hand, in too many cases To obtain these benefits, an unacceptable and frequently unnecessary price has been paid, especially in social and environmental terms, by displaced persons, downstream communities, taxpayers, and the environment. [6]

IV. Conclusions of the Commission's Report

The World Commission on Dams (WCD) in its Global Review of Large Dams presents ample evidence that large dams have failed to produce the electricity offered, supply the required water, or prevent flood damage to the extent predicted by their developers. [7] In the review of results, it concludes that the dams considered in the Knowledge Base showed a marked tendency to suffer delays in execution and significant costs. In other words, these works vastly exceed your construction time and cost budgets.

The generic nature of the impacts that dams have on ecosystems, biodiversity, downstream livelihoods and social impacts is increasingly well understood. In terms of impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity and livelihoods, according to the Commission's Knowledge Base, it is clear that large dams have caused.

> The loss of forests and natural habitats, species populations, and the degradation of upstream basins due to the flooding of the reservoir area.

> Loss of aquatic biodiversity, upstream and downstream fisheries, and services provided by downstream floodplains, wetlands, and adjacent riverside ecosystems and estuaries.

> Cumulative impacts on water quality, natural flooding, and species composition, when several dams are built on the same river.

In terms of social impacts, the Commission found that there are a wide variety of impacts that span the lives, livelihoods, and health of the communities that depend on the riparian environments affected by the dams. The Commission concludes that:

> Between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced worldwide by dams.

> Millions of people live downstream of dams - particularly those that depend on natural floodplains and fishing - have seen their livelihoods seriously damaged and the future productivity of their resources put at risk.

> Vulnerable indigenous and tribal groups and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately displaced and have had negative impacts on their livelihoods, culture and spirituality.

> Affected populations living near reservoirs, displaced people and downstream communities have often had to deal with health problems, and with negative consequences on their livelihoods due to environmental and social changes.

> Among affected communities, gender gaps have widened and women have often borne disproportionately the social costs and have often been discriminated against when sharing benefits.

Everything indicated in the report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) confirms the arguments of those who speak out against this type of project. All this leads us to say with the Commission, by not adequately considering these impacts, nor fulfilling the commitments acquired, there has been the impoverishment and suffering of millions of people, resulting in the affected communities around the world showing growing opposition to dams.

To reduce the conflicts generated and so that future conflicts do not continue to be generated, and for governments to promote developments that generate human well-being, just, equitable and inclusive and sustainable, the World Commission on Dams (WRC) proposes a new approach towards decision-making, based on the recognition of rights and the assessment of risks for all actors whose rights could be affected. This means that all actors who are imposed risks against their will must be included in development decisions.

V. Strategic Priorities for Decision Making

The Commission developed a constructive and innovative mode of decision-making in the form of seven priorities and their corresponding policy principles. The strategic priorities are as follows:

Strategic Priority No. 1

Obtain public acceptance.

Public acceptance of important decisions is essential for the equitable and sustainable development of water and energy resources. Acceptance arises from the recognition of rights, taking into account risks, and the protection of the rights of all groups of people affected, in particular indigenous and tribal groups, women and other vulnerable groups. The decision-making processes and mechanisms used should facilitate the participation and information of all groups, and result in demonstrable acceptance of the main decisions. When projects affect indigenous and tribal groups, these processes are guided by their free, prior consent and based on adequate information.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. The recognition of rights and the assessment of risks constitute the basis for the identification and inclusion of those involved in decision-making related to the development of water and energy resources.

2. Access to information in general, to legal and other information, must be available to all those involved, particularly indigenous and tribal groups, women and other vulnerable groups, to facilitate their informed participation in decision-making processes.

3. Demonstrable public acceptance of all important decisions is achieved through agreements negotiated in an open and transparent manner, carried out in good faith and with the participation of all those involved after being informed.

4. Decisions on projects that affect indigenous and tribal groups are guided by free consent, expressed prior to decision-making, after being informed, and reached through their formal and informal representative bodies.

Strategic Priority No. 2

Comprehensive evaluation of options.

There are often alternatives to dam projects. In order to explore these alternatives, the needs for water, food and energy must be assessed, and the objectives clearly defined.The most suitable alternative for development is identified from a variety of possible options, and the choice is based in a comprehensive and participatory evaluation of the set of institutional, technical and policy options. In the evaluation process the social and environmental aspects are as important as the economic and financial factors. The process of evaluating the options continues in all phases of planning, development and operations of the project.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. Development needs and objectives are clearly formulated, through an open and participatory process, before identifying and evaluating options for development.

2. Planning approaches that take into account the full range of development objectives are used to evaluate policy, institutional, managerial and technical options before making the decision to initiate a program or project.

3. Social and environmental aspects are given equal importance as economic and financial factors when evaluating options.

4. Priority is given in evaluating alternatives to increasing the efficiency and sustainability of existing water, irrigation and energy systems.

5. If a dam is chosen after a comprehensive evaluation of the options, social and environmental principles are applied in the review and selection of options and in all phases of planning, design, construction and operation of the project.

Strategic Priority No. 3

Treatment of existing dams.

Opportunities exist to optimize the benefits of many existing dams, resolve outstanding social issues, and strengthen environmental mitigation and recovery measures. Dams and the environment in which they operate are not considered static in time. Benefits and impacts-may be transformed due to changes in water use priorities, changes in land use and physical characteristics in the watershed, technological developments, and changes in public policies on environment, security, economic and technology. Management and operating practices must continuously adapt to changing circumstances throughout the life of the project and must respond to outstanding social problems.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. A comprehensive monitoring and evaluation process is introduced after project completion, as well as a longer-term system for periodic reviews of the performance, benefits, and impacts of all existing large dams.

2. Programs are created and implemented to restore, improve and optimize the benefits of existing large dams. Among the options that should be considered, the following stand out: rehabilitating, modernizing and improving equipment and facilities, optimizing the operation of reservoirs, and introducing non-structural measures to improve efficiency in the distribution and use of services.

3. Pending social issues in existing large dams are identified and assessed, and processes and mechanisms are established with affected communities to remedy them.

4. The effectiveness of environmental mitigation measures is evaluated and unforeseen impacts are identified; the possibilities to mitigate, restore or improve are recognized, identified and acted upon.

5. All dams have formalized operating agreements, with limited license plans. If in the re-planning or re-licensing processes it is considered advantageous to make considerable physical changes to the facilities, or to permanently dismantle the dam, a full feasibility study and evaluation of the environmental and social impact should be carried out.

Strategic Priority No. 4

Sustain the rivers and the means to earn a living

Rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are the biological engines of the planet. They are the basis of life and livelihood for local communities. Dams transform landscapes and create risks of irreversible impacts. Understanding, protecting, and restoring ecosystems at the basin level is essential to promoting equitable human development and the well-being of all species. The evaluation of options and decision-making about river development prioritize efforts to avoid impacts, followed by minimization and mitigation of damages to the health and integrity of the river system. Avoiding impacts, through a suitable selection of the site and an adequate design of the project is a priority. Releasing scientifically designed ecological flows can help maintain downstream ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. A comprehensive basin-wide understanding of ecosystem functions, values ​​and requirements, and of how the community depends on and influences these by earning a livelihood, is a requirement before decisions can be made on development options.

2. Decisions value ecosystems, health and social situations as integral parts of project development and the watershed, and prioritize ways to avoid impacts, in accordance with a precautionary approach.

3. A national policy is developed to keep selected rivers with high ecosystem functions and values ​​in their natural state. When reviewing alternative locations for dams on undeveloped rivers, priority is given to locations on tributaries.

4. Projects are selected that avoid significant impacts for threatened or endangered species. When impacts cannot be avoided, viable compensation measures are put in place that will produce a net advance for the species within the region.

5. Large dams will provide for the release of environmental flows to help maintain the integrity of ecosystems and the livelihoods of downstream communities and will be designed, modified and operated with these objectives.

Strategic Priority No. 5

Recognize rights and share benefits

As a result, joint negotiations with adversely affected people provide mutually agreed mitigation and development provisions that are likely to be applied. These provisions recognize rights that will improve livelihoods and quality of life, and affected people will always be beneficiaries of the project. Successful mitigation, resettlement and development are fundamental commitments and responsibilities of the State and the project promoter. They have an obligation to satisfy all affected people in the sense that moving from their current context and resources will improve their way of earning a living. Accountability by the responsible parties, so that they comply with the agreed mitigation, resettlement and development provisions, is ensured by legal means, such as contracts, and through an accessible process of legal appeal at the national and international level.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. The recognition of rights and the diagnosis of risks is the basis for identifying and including adversely affected actors in joint negotiations on mitigation, resettlement and decisions related to development.

2. The impact assessment includes all the people in the reservoir, upstream and downstream and catchment areas whose assets, vital resources and non-material values ​​are affected. They also include people affected by dam-related infrastructure such as canals, transmission lines, and the development of resettlement sites.

3. All the persons recognized as adversely affected negotiate the rights by common agreement, formal and enforceable under the law, in relation to mitigation, resettlement and development.

4. It is recognized that adversely affected people are the first beneficiaries of the project. Mechanisms are negotiated by common agreement and with legal protection to share the benefits in order to ensure their concrete application.

Strategic Priority No. 6

Guarantee compliance with the provisions.

To ensure trust and credibility with the public, governments, project promoters, regulatory authorities and operating entities are required to comply with all the commitments accepted for the planning, execution and operation of dams. Compliance with applicable regulations, criteria and guidelines, and agreements negotiated specifically for each project is ensured at all crucial stages of project planning and execution. A set of mutually reinforcing incentives and mechanisms is required for social, environmental and technical measures. These should include an appropriate mix of regulatory and other measures, incorporating incentives and penalties. Regulatory and compliance frameworks will use incentives and penalties to ensure effectiveness when flexibility is required to deal with changing circumstances.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. A clear, consistent and common set of criteria and guidelines to ensure compliance is adopted among the promoting, contracting and financial institutions; compliance is subject to independent and transparent review.

2. A Compliance Plan is prepared for each project before starting it, outlining how compliance will be achieved, with relevant criteria and guidelines and specifying binding schemes for the technical, economic, social and environmental commitments specific to each project.

3. The costs to establish compliance mechanisms and related institutional capacity, and their effective application, are incorporated into the project budget.

4. Corrupt practices are avoided through the application of the legislation, voluntary integrity pacts, the disaffection (of lawyers, judges, etc. Professional practice) and other instruments.

5. Public and private financial institutions develop incentives that compensate project proponents for complying with the criteria and guidelines.

Strategic Priority No. 7

Sharing the Rivers for Peace, Development and Security

Storing water and diverting it in transboundary rivers has been a source of considerable tension between and within countries. Being specific interventions to move water, dams require constructive cooperation. Consequently, the use and management of resources is increasingly the object of consensus among States to mutually promote their best interests for regional cooperation and peaceful collaboration. This leads to a transition of focus, from the narrow focus of allocating a finite resource, to the action of sharing rivers and their associated benefits, action in which the States will be innovative in defining the scope of the negotiation issues. The external financing entities will support the principles of good faith negotiations between the riparian States.

Political Principles for its effective implementation:

1. National policies on water resources will have specific provisions for regional agreements at the level of shared hydrographic basins. The agreements will be negotiated based on good faith between the riparian States. They are based on the principles of fair and reasonable utilization, no significant damage, prior information and the strategic priorities of the Commission.

2. The Riparian States will no longer look at water as a finite good that must be divided, but will embrace an approach that does not equitably allocate water, but rather the benefits that can be derived from it. Where appropriate, negotiations include benefits outside the basin and to other sectors with mutual interests.

3. Dams on shared rivers are not built in cases where riparian States raise an objection that is ratified by an independent panel. Irresolvable disputes between countries will be settled through various dispute resolution mechanisms, which will include, as a last resort, the International Court of Justice.

4. To develop projects in rivers shared between political units within the same country, the necessary legislative provisions will be made at the national and sectional level to incorporate the strategic priorities of the Commission, of “achieving citizen acceptance”, “recognizing the rights ”, and“ sustaining rivers and means of earning a living ”.

5. When a government agency plans or facilitates the construction of a dam on a shared river, contrary to the principle of good faith negotiations between the riparian States, external financial entities will withdraw their support for the projects and programs promoted by said agency.

Lastly, the WRC concluded that the “goal” that any development project must achieve is to improve human well-being in a sustainable way, that is, to produce a significant advance in human development, on a basis that is economically, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable. If building a group is the best way to achieve this goal, it deserves to be supported. When other options are a better alternative, they should be favored, and not large dams.

SAW. What could be other options and alternatives to large dams?

There are various ways in which governments can provide electricity to their inhabitants. This includes upgrading existing plants and transmission lines, building new energy sources, and reducing energy demand.

To reduce energy demand, governments can incentivize factories, companies, businesses, industries to use energy effectively. This costs less and is better for the environment than building new hydroelectric plants and dams.

Some mechanisms to save energy are to help people pay for appliances and lamps that use less electricity. Governments can levy more taxes on businesses and individuals using more energy-consuming appliances. Individuals and businesses can be encouraged to use electricity at different times of the day. This will help build fewer dams.

Another option is to upgrade existing dams and transmission lines. We all know that transmission lines transport energy from power plants to homes, large cities, factories and businesses. In many countries, poor quality transmission lines waste a lot of energy. They make it advisable to repair them.

Existing dams or power plants can be improved by cleaning them, removing sediment, and making other technical improvements in order to produce more electricity.

Other ways to generate energy for cities and rural areas is the construction of small hydroelectric plants a few meters high with stones, earth or wood. These do not change the course of the rivers, they do not displace anyone or they do not need to be dammed and they can be operated by the communities. There is also biomass energy, produced by the use of animal and agricultural waste to burn them in the kitchen, produce gas and heat buildings, solar energy, wind energy, that is, that produced by wind, geothermal energy and others. .

VII. conclusion

The report of the World Commission on Dams evidently confirms the reasons of the communities that oppose the construction of the dams.

The WRC proposes a new approach to decision-making based on the recognition of rights and the assessment of risks for all actors whose rights could be affected. This new approach is what should guide the actions of governments regarding the development of energy and water resources. Hence, the “end” that any development project must achieve is to improve human well-being in a sustainable way, that is, to produce a significant advance in human development, on a basis that is economically, socially equitable, and environmentally sustainable. When other options are a better alternative, they should be favored, and not large dams.

For indigenous peoples, the report and recommendations of the World Commission on Dams constitute the best instrument to fight for their true inclusion in state decision-making.

The World Bank and the World Conservation Union were the ones that established the World Commission on Dam and therefore, the Bank must follow and include in its financing policies the recommendations and strategic priorities formulated by the WCD.

* Efrén Diego Domingo


[1] See Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision Making. Report of the World Commission on Dams. A Synthesis. Dams and Development, an Introduction. Pages 2 and 3. November, 2000.

[2] Guardians of the Rivers. Guide for Activists. P. 16. Publication of the International Rivers Network.

[3] Editorial. La Parota: prevent new conflicts.

[4] Council of Ejidos and Communities Opposing the La Parota hydroelectric plant, Guerrero, Mexico.

[5] Paid field. Free Press, 04/30/2007.

[6] See Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision Making. November, 2000. 3.

[7] Aviva Imhof, Susanne Wong y Peter Bosshard. Guía Ciudadana sobre la Comisión Mundial de Represas, Publicado por la red Internacional de Ríos (IRN). 2

Fuentes de información:

Aviva Imhof, Susanne Wong y Peter Bosshard. Guía Ciudadana sobre la Comisión Mundial de Represas, Publicado por la Red Internacional de Ríos (IRN).

Guardianes de los Ríos. Internacional Rivers Network (IRN).

Represas y Desarrollo: Un Nuevo Marco para la Toma de Decisiones. World Commission on Dams.

Represas, Rios y Derechos. Guía de acción para comunidades afectadas por las represas. International Rivers Network (IRN) y Linking Rights and Enviromental Protection.

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