Defending Rivers and Rights

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Originally published in Pambazuka News

Across the globe, from the floodplains of the Amazon to the foothills of the Himalayas, from Burmese forests to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, peasant and indigenous communities are fighting against destructive dams. Dams have deprived hundreds of millions of people of their homes, farmlands, fisheries and forests. Millions more are threatened by projects that are planned or under construction, writes Peter Bosshard.

In early September, governments, dam builders, academics and environmental organizations will get together at World Water Week in Stockholm. They will take stock of the experience with big dams and discuss the best ways to plan future water and energy projects. A central question in this debate is whether binding standards or voluntary commitments by the dam industry are better suited to deliver good projects.

Ten years ago, Nelson Mandela launched a new approach to dam building through the report of the independent World Commission on Dams. Under the World Commission on Dams framework, social, environmental and economic interests would be considered equally in the planning of dams. Affected communities would negotiate binding contracts with dam builders and governments to protect their interests. Indigenous peoples would have the right to give or withhold consent to projects on their traditional lands. Affected communities would therefore no longer be passive victims or beneficiaries, but active participants in decisions about dam projects.

Civil society groups, international organizations, some government agencies and banks embraced the new approach. The African Development Bank called the report ‘a major milestone in the assessment of economic, technical, and environmental performance of large dams’, and said it would ‘incorporate the criteria and guidelines’ in its own guidelines for the water sector. In South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Togo and other countries, civil society groups and government agencies initiated national follow-up dialogues to adapt the new framework to their own situations. Several of these dialogue processes are being revived at the 10th anniversary of the World Commission on Dams.

The dam industry and many Southern governments opposed the new approach. ‘We are concerned about the practicality of all affected people being part of the negotiation process’, the International Hydropower Association, a lobby group, commented. “The intent is noble, but the end result would be a lawyer’s dream, diverting resources from the just beneficiaries.” The concern about lawyers’ fees and delays, it should be noted, has never stopped the dam industry from protecting its own interests in binding contracts.

Since 2007, the International Hydropower Association has developed its own environmental guideline, called the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. The protocol does not recognise the right of indigenous peoples to give or withhold consent for projects on their lands. It does not require that dams comply with national law or international conventions. The protocol instead offers a checklist of social and environmental criteria against which dam builders can voluntarily assess their projects.

The new industry protocol, which will be launched later this year, lags behind existing norms and standards. Since the World Commission on Dams published its report, the right of indigenous peoples to consent regarding projects on their lands has been recognised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Asian Development Bank and other institutions. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with 144 countries voting in favour. The Declaration explicitly states that ‘no relocation shall take place’ without the consent of the concerned indigenous peoples.

The Wuskwatim hydropower project in Canada illustrates how affected communities can assert their rights. After Canada’s Supreme Court recognised that First Nations need to give consent to projects on their lands, the power utility Manitoba Hydro worked with the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation to develop the project. The size of the reservoir was greatly reduced, and the Nisichawayasihk Cree received ownership of 33 per cent of the hydropower station. Although not perfect, the Wuskwatim deal has the potential to provide real benefits to local people. It was approved by the Nisichawayasihk Cree in a referendum in 2006.

The Maguga Dam in Swaziland shows how affected communities can effectively benefit from dam projects. Poor communities were not involved in the decisions about what kind of water project would be most appropriate for Swaziland. Yet once the new report was published, the project authorities followed its guidelines on sharing benefits. Affected communities received water, electricity, jobs, health services, and assistance in setting up farming cooperatives. They were free to build their new houses as they wanted, and could take grievances to a new dispute resolution process.

A new report published by International Rivers presents other examples of how the rights-based approach to dam building has proven its value in practice. It also documents how ignoring the rights of affected communities has often led to conflict, impoverishment, cost-overruns and delays.

Environmental organisations, governments and dam builders often find themselves in the trenches fighting over mega-projects in Africa, the Amazon, the Mekong Basin and other regions. At the same time, they all have an interest in agreeing on standards and processes that can avoid conflicts and make water and energy projects more sustainable. Projects such as the Maguga and Wuskwatim dams show that there is room for compromise and cooperation. The upcoming World Water Week provides an opportunity for a renewed dialogue about water and energy projects.


* Peter Bosshard is policy director of International Rivers. The new International Rivers report on rivers and rights is available from their website.

10th anniversary of the World Commission on Dams