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HL Blohm

Vice President, Montgomery Watson Harza, and Past President USSD

The ICOLD Position(s) on the WCD Report – An Explanation


Historically, ICOLD has dealt with benefits and concerns about dams.ICOLD has developed responses to most concerns including social and environmental.ICOLD has a Position Paper on Dams and the Environment. With this background, ICOLD President Varma formed a task force to respond to the WCD Report.We issued the first response on 30 November 2000.A final response was issued February 2001.

The following describes ICOLD’s history, the approach used, and the ICOLD Position which is best summarized by an excerpt from President Varma’s statement included in Hydropower and Dams World Atlas 2001.

". . . .the report cannot be wished away.The good from it could help the world if the report is not thrust down the throats of the unwilling."

". . . .our committees should examine the various aspects of the recommendations and see how, and to what extent, those which are practicable can be used for the overall benefit of mankind."


In this paper, I will explain the ICOLD Position(s) on the WCD report by:

  • Providing a brief history of ICOLD’s involvement with Benefits and Concerns about Dams,
  • Describing the approach applied to develop the ICOLD Position(s),
  • Describing the ICOLD Position(s), and
  • Providing a summary of ICOLD’s work in responding to the WCD Report.

It is important that we all understand that ICOLD does not have a single position of either being for the report or against it.Instead, we in ICOLD recognize that portions of the WCD Report have considerable merit and we must work cooperatively to help ensure that those portions and recommendations that have sound practical applications be utilized as appropriate by each nation.

History of Benefits and Concerns about Dams

ICOLD has a long history of addressing benefits and concerns about dams.ICOLD began publishing bulletins regarding dams and the environment more than 20 years ago.

Also, Question 40 discussed at the Eleventh ICOLD Congress in Madrid, Spain, in 1973 was entitled "The Consequences on the Environment of Building Dams".

In May 1997, ICOLD published a booklet entitled Benefits and Concerns about Dams, an Argumentaire.Also in May 1997, ICOLD published a position paper on dams and environment.These documents reflect the evolution of ICOLD from a safety and technically oriented organization to one that is also responsive to attitudes and needs of society.

At least part of the motivation that accelerated change resulted from ICOLD’s participation and meetings with the International Rivers Network (IRN) in San Francisco in 1988.While we did not and do not agree with the IRN’s methods, we did listen to their presentation and points raised.In 1988, the IRN issued the San Francisco Manifesto.The several points included in this document can be grouped as follows:

  • Reservoirs displace people causing a negative impact to their well being.
  • Dams and reservoirs cause disease.
  • Dams and reservoirs destroy nature.
  • Dams interfere with river based activities.

Wenote that the WCD Report also identifies in general these same points.

Approach Used to Develop the ICOLD Position(s)

As noted in the Introduction to this paper, ICOLD’s position has many components just as the WCD Report comprises many components.

To develop the ICOLD position and to ensure the involvement of interested National Committees, ICOLD President C.V.J. Varma formed a task force type committee to read the documents, collect input from interested parties and prepare a response to the WCD Report.The Task Force Members were:

L. Stephens - Representing ICID

J. Lecornu - ICOLD Secretary General

G. Gaetan - ICOLD Committee on the Environment

J.E. Klimpt - IHA

K. Baba - Japanese Committee on Large Dams

M. Turfan - V.P., ICOLD and Turkish National Committee on Large Dams

H. Blohm - Task Force Chair and USSD

In addition, several other individuals, too numerous to mention by name, contributed by reading the WCD Report and sending written comments to the Task Force.

The approach to developing our response, which would ultimately serve as the basis for the ICOLD position involved:

  • All members read all or portions of the WCD Report prior to meeting in Montreal.
  • All attended a three day meeting (workshop) in Montreal, Canada.
  • All participants contributed by stating their goals for the workshop in Montreal, performing review assignments, and agreeing on the draft response/initial position.
  • All assisted in interpreting and incorporating input from persons not in attendance.
  • The draft was transmitted to President Varma, who accepted the Task Forces recommendations without modification.
  • The letter was finalized in Paris, sent to Prof. Asmal and posted on the ICOLD website.

The significant points raised by nearly all involved in the response preparation were:

  • The report could be interpreted as anti-development.
  • The WCD Mandates were only partially achieved.They were:
  1. To review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development.
  2. To develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards, where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.
  • The reference projects are not representative of today’s methods.
  • Many of the recommendations are consistent with ICOLD’s Position Paper on Dams and the Environment.
  • The WCD emphasis on the fate of affected people is commendable.Each government must address this issue in its own way.
  • The WCD recommendations are not universally applicable.
  • ICOLD is ready to cooperate openly and positively with other organizations concerned with sustainable river development.
  • The task force prepared its initial response at the end of November 2000.It is posted on the ICOLD Website.The contents can be summarized by the following quote:

" There is little doubt that the world is water short and the shortage will grow.The need for structural solutions, including more dams, is undeniable because there are no other practical solutions.ICOLD favors a balanced approach to dam and project development, giving a stronger voice to affected people and communities.ICOLD feels that procedures for development are specific to each country.Each country should consider the WCD recommendations and the ICOLD guidelines.However, each country must also consider its prevailing conditions, traditions laws and needs.The WCD recommendations are not universally applicable and should not be considered as such by anyone, including funding institutions."

Since November of 2000, all ICOLD National Committees were invited to comment on the WCD Report.Twenty-seven (27) national committees have commented.However, only 23 of the comments are posted on the ICOLD website at this time.Based upon my interpretation of the posted comments, it appears that the points raised in the Task Force’s initial review remain the same as the principal points raised formally by the national committees.

To better understand the ICOLD members’ positions on the WCD Report, I attempted to place the 23 responses into four simplified categories:FOR, MODERATE, AGAINST, and NO OPINION.The results are presented on Figure 1.While the number of commenting committees is quite small, when one considers that there are 80 member countries, we can make only limited observations:

  • The distribution of those FOR, MODERATES and those AGAINST is about the same as the first 15 responses that the Task force received in Montreal.
  • Initially, I made no attempt to rate the "against category" as to whether or not they were strongly against or moderately against, as this is highly subjective.Upon rereading, I can estimate that about 50 percent are moderately against.
  • There is no way to know why 75 percent of our membership did not respond.

However, based on the above points, we can conclude that more than 50 percent of our membership sees some benefit in the WCD work and wants to cooperate.

Figure 1.National Committee Responses

Blohm 1

The ICOLD Position

With the conclusion noted above in mind, what are the most common themes of the national committee responses?They appear to fall into the following groups:

  • The five core values are good.
    1. Equity
    2. Efficiency
    3. Participatory Decision Making
    4. Sustainability, and
    5. Accountability
  • The Processes outlined are cumbersome and impractical.
  • Too few projects were studied and examples are not representative.
  • There is no acknowledgement that environmental/social aspects of development have improved in recent history.
  • The description of Dam Benefits is severely inadequate.
  • The report is written in a style that presents dams in a negative way.
  • Many accept the goals of WCD and contributions to database.

Most commenters mentioned the project options assessment process as being far too cumbersome and one that allows small groups to control the process.Please refer to Figure 2.During project planning, if no consensus is achieved (see the 3 blocks on the right of diagram) then significant and costly delays will likely occur in the development process.Finally "No agreement leads to selection of an alternative project option, arbitration or judicial review."Several commenters stated that this could take several years thus discouraging participation by financial institutions or banks.

Figure 2.Options Assessment Process

Blohm 2

The WCD also recommend seven actions summarized below:

  • increase the efficiency of existing assets;
  • avoid and minimize ecosystem impacts;
  • engage in participatory, multi-criteria analysis of development needs and options;
  • ensure that displaced and profit-affected peoples’ livelihoods are improved;
  • resolve past inequities and injustices, and transform project-affected people into beneficiaries;
  • conduct regular monitoring and periodic review; and
  • develop, apply and enforce incentives and recourse mechanisms—especially in the area of environmental and social performance.

While most commenters found these actions partially worthwhile, many commented that resolving past inequities would be largely impractical.

To put the various comments into the proper perspective, the following are some representative quotes from the national committees.If any believe that they have been taken out of context, I apologize as this was not my intent.

Australia (ANCOLD)

"ANCOLD believes that ICOLD should welcome the report as a way forward in the difficult task of providing water and power for all.ICOLD must recognise that some dams have had high environmental and social costs.These have led to systemic objections to other essential projects.The five core values can be accepted as a basis of decision-making and it should be recognized that with community participation, projects can be made more effective.Governments and lending agencies must, however, accept that in providing for an every-increasing population in an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable manner there may be privileges that some currently enjoy which cannot be maintained.Participatory decision-making involving single-issue groups, current inequalities and restricted resources is a challenge for governments.

ICOLD must rise to the challenge of assisting its members to develop projects that will meet environmental, social and economic objectives in a safe and sustainable manner."

Brazil (Brazilian Committee on Dams)

"It seems that indisputably successful cases did not deserve the same degree of the Commissioners’ attention as if no important lessons could be learned from them.It should be recognized that the simple fact that they are not under the same degree of dispute as those selected may mean that they have met a significant degree of public acceptance.And they largely outnumber those that are being argued upon."


"The WCD Report had the merit of bringing into discussion important points related to the dam business.The results are however unbalanced by what seems to be a prejudice in not properly considering a larger sample of dams, including well succeeded examples.Despite that, the dissent about dams is put in evidence to justify a rather self-confident tone in the Report.

We believe that there is a long way to go until the Report is fully digested and its meritorious points accepted by all parties involved in a new dam project."

Norway (NNCOLD)

"Alternatives to Dams

Even when limited to the energy aspect only, the report fails in a number of ways when it comes to alternatives.

  • In contrast with the global approach in the policy part concerning the decision-making process, climate and energy problems at a global scale are only briefly touched upon.By avoiding this decisive argument for global thinking, the lack of balance becomes even more evident.
  • Existing dams are given very little credit for their CO2 savings.On the contrary, the report’s main focus in this relation is limited to non-typical CO2 release from certain reservoirs.
  • Like in many reports influenced by NGO’s, the transition period needed to develop and introduce economically feasible new technologies and so-called new renewables is embarrassingly underestimated.
  • Similarly, Demand Management is introduced as the solving solution – no more dams needed.Unfortunately it is a long way to go before demand management can replace coal and nuclear energy sources in the industrialized countries.This should be even more valid for large-scale hydro as a renewable energy resource.

In developing countries, where according to the Commission, one finds two billion people without electricity at all, to suggest demand management solutions is an insult to the potential consumers, still hoping to be offered at least a minimum of the advantages following electrification.

  • The Commission is strongly focusing on project delays and cost overruns as typical problems connected to dams.It can be questioned whether this is specific to dams or rather a general problem common to all large scale enterprises, included those introduced as alternatives to dams."


"The Commission is expressing a hope that ‘---one of the lasting results of the WCD process will have been to change the tenor of that debate from one of lack of trust and destructive confrontation to co-operation; shared goals and more equitable development outcomes.’

This hope is certainly also shared by NNCOLD.A better mutual understanding might already have been achieved through the report."

Zimbabwe (ZIMCOLD)

The WCD Report concludes with guidelines to direct decision-making and development planning in the future.A large part of the recommendations are a normal part of the process of implementation of a dam project and are not controversial.These include the assessment of demand and predictions of future growth, the comparison of alternative options to meet the anticipated demand, with due attention paid to social costs and mitigation of adverse environmental effects, and selection of optimum technology to meet the desired objective.These principles are widely accepted, though there is clearly a need for improvement in implementation.

The Guidelines that address the questions of project definition and acceptance, including issues of consultations, involuntary risk and negotiations to achieve wholly acceptance solutions, are less easily assimilated for universal application.They tend to grant delaying or blocking powers to groups that, while clearly affected by the proposed development, may have concerns of self-interest at heart.This can impact adversely on national economic progress on the WCD Report; it is made plain on several occasions that the recommendations given are guidelines, not hard and fast rules."Nobody can, of course, simply pick up the report and implement it in full.It is not a blueprint" (page 311).There is a danger, however, that many agencies and development banks in particular, will accept and rigidly apply the findings of the Report and Guidelines without regard to individual project circumstances.The effect will be to delay implementation and increase project costs, to the detriment of economic progress and the goal of poverty alleviation.


In summary, we can say that ICOLD’s final position is one of moderation.ICOLD accepts the need to address problems and inequities in the project development process, but in accordance with each country’s needs, laws and customs.

There are elements of the WCD Report and recommendations that many of our members are currently using and there will be more in the future.

I offer the following to quotes from ICOLD President Varma that best summarize ICOLD’s position:

"ICOLD is prepared to cooperate to help ensure that appropriate guidelines are offered and to help ensure that projects that are clearly needed are developed expeditiously and consistent with each country’s laws and customs."


"---the WCD report cannot be wished away.The good from it could help the world if the report is not thrust down the throats of the unwilling.I believe, as President of ICOLD, that our committees should examine the various aspects of the recommendations and see how, and to what extent, those which are practicable can be used for the overall benefit of mankind."