NGOs protest against World Bank position on World Dams report

The Berne Declaration and the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People protest against the World Bank's refusal to accept the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams report. In a letter to President Wolfensohn which was endorsed by 85 other groups from 30 countries, they say that if the Bank does not comprehensively adopt the WCD's recommendations, NGOs will hesitate to engage in other dialogues with the Bank in the future.

In a letter to President James Wolfensohn, 87 NGOs and movements from 30 countries on 19 March protested against the position which the World Bank has so far taken on the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report. The groups, which were all involved in the WCD process, say the Bank's response to the report has been "ill-advised, disappointing and in parts inappropriate". After the high-level report was published on 16 November, 2000, a Bank mission set out to consult those governments which are most actively involved in building large dams. As a result, the World Bank informed the WCD Forum in Cape Town on 25 February that it would not adopt the WCD's new guidelines, but would only use them as a non-binding reference point when considering new dam projects. At the same time, the NGOs say, Bank representatives are silently lobbying governments and other institutions to reject the WCD's recommendations.

"NGOs certainly agree that borrowing country governments have an important role to play, and are interested in having an active dialogue with them on the implementation of the WCD report", says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, one of the authors of the NGO letter. "Yet if the World Bank simply consults the water and energy ministries which build the largest dams, it should refrain from pretending to be an honest broker, but should make it clear that it represents one interest group in a conflictive debate", Thakkar adds.

The NGO letter points out that the World Bank was actively involved in the WCD process from the very beginning, that the Bank has "quite likely had more opportunities for inputs into the process than any other institution", and that it has repeatedly "applauded the WCD as a model for resolving conflict through dialogue". In their letter, the NGOs call on the Bank to comprehensively adopt the recommendations of the WCD, to establish independent reviews of its planned and ongoing dam projects, to establish mechanisms for providing reparations to communities that have been hurt by earlier dam projects, and to place a moratorium on the funding of new dams until it has implemented the WCD guidelines. The NGOs point out that many international financial institutions, government agencies, scientific bodies and industry associations have already come out in support of the WCD recommendations.

"The World Bank's response to the WCD report is a test-case for the value of multi-stakeholder dialogues to resolve social conflict", says Christine Eberlein of the Berne Declaration, the co-author of the NGO letter. "If the Bank does not implement the consensus recommendations which were reached by the WCD, but uses dialogue only to deflect opposition, NGOs will likely distrust any future multi-stakeholder processes promoted by the Bank", Eberlein adds.

The World Commission on Dams was an independent body chaired by South African minister Kader Asmal whose twelve prominent members represented the different perspectives involved in the large dams debate. The Commission conducted the first ever comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of large dams, and published its consensus report on 16 November, 2000. In its report, the WCD recommends, inter alia, that all water and energy projects should be based on a balanced assessment of needs and options, that all decision to build dams should be based on the agreement of dam-affected communities, and that optimizing the existing water and energy facilities should have priority over the building of new projects.