In spring 1997, the World Bank and its frequent enemy, World Conservation Network, joined hands in an attempt to find a way through the conflict that has halted dam construction in many developed countries and has made it a hated symbol of technological imperialism in developing lands. They co-sponsored the World Commission on Dams, a body whose membership covered the full range of opinion on dam construction. WCD's mission was to produce in two years a consensus on how societies can continue to realize the benefits of dam construction while taking due account of the interests of people directly affected by the projects.
Amazingly, the commission's report was issued in November 2000 with 100% consensus, and was greeted by cautious optimism by companies, governments and other organizations (ENR 11/27/ 00 p. 12). But in the first test of its shiny-new guidelines, the World Bank has decided to back the Bujagali Dam even though it acknowledges that the project is "unacceptable from environmental and social perspectives." The bank rationalizes that the WCD guidelines "offer guidance, not a regulatory framework." The bank also promises that no more such dams will be built on the upper Nile.
How can a co-sponsor of this groundbreaking achievement justify ignoring WCD's findings? Any mother of a teenager knows the reason: "Everybody does it," or, in the bureaucratic language of the World Bank's statement, "To the best of its knowledge [the] process proposed by the WCD has never been implemented in a major dam project." What deplorable hypocrisy.
In the WCD guidelines, ENR sees the best hope for balancing what have long been seen as irreconcilable conflicts among stakeholders over dam construction. If the study's own sponsors refuse to be guided by them, all we can anticipate is continued sclerosis in dambuilding.
Dams are not the villains. They can provide immense economic and social benefits to a nation that can continue for decades, if not centuries. It is the duty of the planners to make sure that the good from these projects is not outweighed by the negatives from thoughtlessness.