Report attacks environmental cost of dams

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The Independent Online

The most comprehensive inquiry so far into the world's dams has found that too many were built with little consideration for local people or the environment.

The most comprehensive inquiry so far into the world's dams has found that too many were built with little consideration for local people or the environment.

But the report by the World Commission on Dams does not condemn dam building outright, saying that there are often no alternatives for developing countries in need of clean water and hydroelectric power.

Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and a patron of the commission, said: "It is one thing to find fault with an existing system. It is another thing altogether, a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better."

The Commission's dozen members - drawn from groups vehemently opposed to each other, ranging from dam owners to environmental activists - published a report yesterday that steers a middle ground between the two viewpoints.

Dams have made "an important and significant contribution to human development" but that "in too many cases, the social and environmental costs have been unacceptable and unnecessary," the report says.

The Commission has drawn up a framework for future decision making which it says moves beyond the simple cost-benefit tradeoffs that many of the world's 45,000 large dams were designed to meet.

The Commission, chaired by Professor Kader Asmal, the South African Minister of Education, has suggested the introduction of a new "rights and risks approach" which is designed to recognise all "legitimate stakeholders" in negotiating the choices when a dam is being considered.

The report, Dams and Development, does not deal by name with projects such as the Three Gorges dam in China, where millions of people are being uprooted, or the Ilisu dam in Turkey, which would inundate one of the world's oldest towns and flood nearly 80,000 people out of their homes.

"The Commission had no mandate to look at proposed dams or dams under construction. It was charged to draw lessons from past experience, not to look at dams on the drawing board," it said.

Although Professor Asmal refused to comment on the effects the new guidelines would have on the construction of individual dams, his officials hinted that they might be used to block international support for the £1.47bn Ilisu dam, which is being part-funded by Britain to the tune of £200m in credits.

The dams investigated by the Commission during its two-year study, as well as displacing up to 80 million people, did immeasurable damage to wildlife, it found. "On balance, the ecosystem impacts are more negative than positive and they have led, in many cases, to significant and irreversible loss of species," the report says.

"Millions of people living downstream from dams - particularly those reliant on natural floodplain functions and fisheries - have also suffered serious harm to their livelihoods."

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