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 Published by the American Geological Institute
January 2001
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

News Notes

Science policy
The good, the bad and the dammed

A landmark report channeled the whirlpool of controversies behind dam building and has declared large dams bigger losers. Although dams have contributed significantly to human development, providing 19 percent of the world’s electricity, often the costs of those achievements have hit hard on the environment and local people, it concludes.
The World Bank, the World Conservation Union, foreign ministries and others from polar sides on the pros and cons of building dams supported the independent, 12-member World Commission on Dams and its report. Two years in the making, the report offers guidelines to help build better dams in the future. “This report provides answers and solutions,” said former South African president Nelson Mandela, who was invited to unveil the document in London on Nov. 16.

[Image: Diagram illustrating the range of issues covered in the World Commission on Dams report. From]

The report concluded that often the financial benefits of building a dam have been overestimated and the ecological and social impacts ignored. “Historically, social and environmental impacts were left outside the assessment framework and the role of impact assessments in project selection remained marginal, even into the 1990s,” says the report, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. To date, dam building has forced up to 80 million people worldwide from their homes.
The commission analyzed case studies of large dams from Brazil, Norway, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, South Africa,  Zambia, Zimbabwe and the United States. The commission surveyed 125 other existing dams; examined reviews from India and China; and read more than 900 solicited and unsolicited submissions.
Although some environmentalists argue the report does not go far enough, many found it encouraging. “The commission supports measures that would help redress the legacy of poor performance and environmental damage from our nation’s large dams,” Tom Graff, Environmental Defense’s California regional director said in a statement.
Businesses also praised the findings and the guidelines of the commission. Edward F. Carter, director of the consulting firm Harza Engineering Company in Chicago, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal that: “The report proposes a sound approach to the future development of a very old, yet important, water resource technology.”
Whether the guidelines will impact plans for large dams in the future, such as the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River in China, remains to be seen. The commission’s report serves as an indictment of the decisions made when creating dams — not of the dams themselves, says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association. In a statement, she added: “Where greater political and individual freedoms exist, governments are accountable, and market forces are allowed to work, development decisions of all kinds are likely to be more equitable, inclusive and fair.”

Christina Reed

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