Re-routing world water ways

December 1, 2000

The global management of water must be rethought, a new report urges. Wendy Barnaby reports.

If politics is the art of the possible, this document is a work of art." The first words used by Kadar Asmal, South African minister of education and chair of the World Commission on Dams, to introduce the commission's final report, sum up the new framework for managing water resources. Tony Allen, professor of geography at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, says: "Water policy will be transformed if it is politically feasible. Influencing political feasibility is the next essential water resource paradigm."

It has been a long road to this approach to water management. Allen has counted four previous paradigms in the history of dam-building, and the report reflects them all.

The report has been produced by a commission that grew out of a World Bank/World Conservation Union meeting in 1997, at which representatives of governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, civil society organisations and affected people discussed the controversial issues associated with large dams.

This century, the nations of the world have collectively bought, on average, one large dam per day; yet there have been no independent, comprehensive analyses of why they have come about, how they perform over time, how they affect people, ecosystems and development, and whether they are worth the investment. This is what the commission has been examining.

Its research has shown that large dams have generally not achieved their targets, whether for irrigation, hydropower or water supply; that they have had more negative than positive impacts on ecosystems; and that they have caused 40 to 80 million people worldwide to be physically displaced. These people's health and livelihoods have often been put at risk and adequate compensation has not been granted.

The report deserves notice not only because it illuminates the past and future paradigms of water resource management, but because, as a research document, it represents a huge consultative effort that gives its conclusions moral force.

The commission's 400-page report was launched last week in London, with Nelson Mandela as one of the guest speakers. The commission comprises 12 people, chosen to reflect regional diversity, expertise and stakeholder perspectives. They come from developed and developing countries, with backgrounds in industry, aid, engineering, affected people's groups, water management, campaigns against dams and environmental protection.

In two years, the commission undertook studies of 11 large dams in five continents, surveyed 150 dams in 56 countries, conducted 17 thematic reviews along five dimensions of the debate, as well as four regional consultations, and attracted 947 submissions from 79 countries.

The report's recommendations are a synthesis with inevitable compromises. But the fact that they were agreed by such a disparate group with such opposing interests is impressive.

There is only one dissenting opinion: that of Medha Patkar, from the Struggle to Save the Narmada River group in India. Reversing the traditional top-down approach in which governments and industry decide on new dams, he argues for a bottom-up strategy in which the rights of all stakeholders are recognised and the risks they run from a proposed dam are evaluated.

Asmal hopes the report will herald a new era in which "technology can... be kept under our united and democratic control, owned by all of us".

The commissioners do not imagine this will be easy. They argue that all stakeholders should be involved as the planning process unfolds. "We have tried to put forward what we consider to be the minimum requirements for negotiation and a consensus-building approach," says Joji Carino, from the Tebtebba Foundation (an international centre for indigenous policy, research and education) in the Philippines. "It is workable, but will require a real determination from governments (to ensure) public acceptance will be a key feature."

"Inclusiveness, participation and human rights are among the ideas which inspire the new approach," adds Allen.

This is a big change from the previous way of doing things. Dams have been built for thousands of years in the belief that nature could be controlled. By the mid-1970s, aid donors were recognising that they were damaging the environment.

While this realisation gripped donors, it made little headway in developing countries. Governments there have been even more hostile to the northern professional water community's conviction that water is an economic resource. For them it is political as well as economic in its importance.

"A fourth paradigm emerged in the last years of the 1990s - that of integrated water resource management," says Allen. "This requires a new holistic approach and an unprecedented level of political cooperation. But water users and policy-makers operate in political systems that determine whether or not the new models can be assimilated.

"The next essential water resource management paradigm is that water users will assimilate integrated water resource management, if integration is appreciated as a political process and not just as a technical, investment or information-sharing process," says Allen.

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