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World Bank Ignoring Dam Guidelines, charge NGOs

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 23 Mar 2001 (IPS) - Nearly 100 non-governmental organisations have criticised the World Bank for refusing to adopt guidelines recommended by the groundbreaking World Commission on Dams report last year which were aimed at limiting the construction of destructive large dams.

The World Commission on Dams (WCD), an independent body which the Bank had a hand in establishing, announced in November that priority be put on optimising existing water and energy facilities rather than on new large dam projects and that all decisions to build new dams be based on agreements with affected communities.

At the report’s release, Bank president James Wolfensohn described it as impressive saying it showed that common ground could be found “among people of good faith coming from very diverse starting points”.

But the World Bank is now singing a different tune, saying it will only use the guidelines proffered by the WCD as reference points rather than adopt them as rules governing its operation.

“We believe that the position which the World Bank and its representatives have taken on the WCD is ill-advised, disappointing and in parts inappropriate,” notes a letter sent out to Wolfensohn this week by a network of 87 organisations and movements from 30 countries.

“If the Bank simply builds its position on the views of dam- building governments it should refrain from being an ‘honest broker’, but should make it clear that it represents one interest group in a conflictive debate,” says the letter initiated by Swiss-based NGO, the Berne Declaration, and the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

The NGOs charge that following the release of the report a Bank task-force studied it, management consulted with a number of governments supporting big dams and came up with the new stance, even though the Bank together with the World Conservation Union were behind the establishment of the WCD.

The WCD consisted of 12 prominent figures representing diverse views on big dam construction including those of activists. It was headed by South African government minister Kader Asmal. Its objectives were to review the development effectiveness of large dams and develop international standards for planning, designing construction and decommissioning of dams.

After two years of study, WCD concluded that large dams have largely failed to provide as much electricity, as much water or control as much floods as their backers claim. Instead they have produced massive forced resettlements, environmental degradation and most often benefited those at the top at the expense of poor rural communities.

The WCD therefore recommended that no dam be built without the agreement of affected people, that comprehensive and participatory needs assessments be developed before new dams were built and periodic reviews be done on existing dams to assess their safety and where necessary decommission some. Furthermore, ways of paying reparations for those who suffered from big dam constructions had to be found.

The WCD estimates that between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced by large dams (defined as being higher than 15 metres), and in India and China alone, as many as 58 million people could have been displaced between 1950 and 1990.

Responding to questions on whether the Bank would adopt the WCD guidelines its senior water specialist John Briscoe said “no we are not going to comply with them, the majority of our borrowers say they are not implementable and the chairman of the commission himself, Asmal, says the guidelines are not meant to be binding”.

“We will use it as a reference but not as a set of conditions to be complied with,” says Briscoe noting that the Bank is an institution governed by its shareholders and borrowers - some 182 governments.  “Every borrower we have consulted says ‘forget it’, these guidelines are not realistic.”

Some of the Bank’s biggest clients such as India and China have categorically stated they will not respect the findings of the WCD.  China is among the Bank’s 10 largest borrowers that accounted for 62% of the Bank’s total lending in 1999.

The Bank itself holds the reputation of being the largest single source of financing for large dam construction around the world, even though its involvement has waned in the face of intense public pressure.

According to the WCD, the Bank has provided an estimated 75 billion dollars (in 1998 dollars) for about 540 large dams in 92 countries including many of the world’s largest and most controversial projects.

In the late 1970s the Bank averted its eyes from the massacre of 400 Maya villagers by Guatemala’s military government. Residents of the village of Rio Negro were refusing to leave their ancestral homes to make way for the construction of the Bank-funded Chixoy Dam.

The Bank’s silence over the massacre was only broken in 1996 when human rights groups exposed the atrocities. An internal Bank investigation subsequently absolved the Bank of responsibility, but affected communities are still seeking reparations from Washington.

Patrick McCully, campaigns director of the California-based International Rivers Network says how the Bank treats the WCD report will influence whether or not other international organisations engaged in big dam projects integrate the recommendations into their own polices.

“While the Bank says it is building fewer dams now, it is still an important actor and its policies are viewed as the international standard by other development agencies,” says McCully.

In their letter, the NGOs called on the Bank to adopt the recommendations, establish independent reviews of its planned and ongoing dam projects and provide reparations to communities harmed by its dam projects.

“If the Bank does not implement the consensus recommendations which were reached by the WCD, but uses dialogue only to deflect opposition, NGOs will likely distrust any future multi-stakeholder process promoted by the Bank,” says Christine Eberlein of the Berne Declaration.

 


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