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World Conservation Union Shapes Dam Mitigation Strategy

by Staff
Environmental News Network, November 13, 2001

On the banks of India's River Narmada, local villagers protest the raising of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in July 2001.

Today there are 1,700 dams under construction around the world: nearly 500 in Brazil and more than 700 in India. To ensure that these and future dams are planned, constructed, and operated in consultation with all stakeholders and that environmental damage is avoided, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has approved a new strategy direction based on last November's comprehensive report of the World Commission on Dams.

The WCD report is the result of a thorough review of large dams and their impact by representatives from governments, industry, and civil society and scientific experts. Large dams cause great environmental damage, the commission found, including the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species and huge losses of forest, wetland, and farmland.

"The strategy will help stakeholders to examine all options for development and, when dams are the best option, to avoid the problems we have seen in the past," said Yolanda Kakabadse, president of IUCN.

The strategy will require a US$15 million investment, $5 million of which has been now secured from various sources, including the IUCN Water & Nature Initiative.

Created in 1948, IUCN brings together 77 states, 112 government agencies, 735 NGOs, 35 affiliates, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. The IUCN's goal is to "conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable."

Worldwide, dams are big business. During the 1990s, dam construction amounted to $39 billion per year. And the stakes are high. While dams have provided electricity and water supply for millions of people, they have displaced up to 80 million people in downstream communities, the World Commission on Dams reported.

Reducing the flow of water from a river changes the landscape it flows through, which in turn can affect the ecosystem's plants and animals, according to Lori Pottinger of the California-based nonprofit International Rivers Network. Working with local dam-affected communities around the world has allowed Pottinger to closely observe the effects of large dams.

A dam holds back sediments, especially the heavy gravel and cobbles. The river then erodes the downstream channel and banks, Pottiger explained. The depletion of riverbed gravels reduces habitat for many fish who spawn in the gravelly river bottom and for invertebrates such as insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. Changes in the physical habitat and hydrology of rivers are implicated in 93 percent of freshwater fauna declines in North America, and the damage can extend for tens or even hundreds of miles below a dam, she said.

The IUCN says that 20 percent of fish species have become extinct due to the fragmentation of rivers by dams.

The World Commission on Dams provided evidence that large dams have failed to produce as much electricity, provide as much water, or control as much flood damage as their backers claim. Huge cost overruns and time delays are common.

The benefits of large dams have largely gone to the already well-off, while poorer sectors of society have borne the costs, the commission found.

Impacts upon people forced from their homes and lands include extreme economic hardship, community disintegration, and an increase in mental and physical health problems, the commission found during two years of investigation.

Indigenous, tribal, and peasant communities have been particularly hard hit. People living downstream of dams have also suffered from increased disease and the loss of natural resources upon which their livelihoods depended, the commission discovered.

"IUCN will collaborate with all committed stakeholders to avoid or mitigate the impacts of dams on biodiversity and livelihoods. Where rivers have been damaged, IUCN will help to restore them," said Jean-Yves Pirot, coordinator of the IUCN Wetlands and Water Resources Program, announcing the new IUCN strategy this week.

It is possible to mitigate or reverse the damage to downstream ecosystems and the livelihoods of local communities, the IUCN says. Fishers on the Senegal River in Mauritania saw their annual catches decline to 10 tons because of a dam and then increase to 110 tons after the introduction of artificial floods by IUCN and its Mauritanian partner organizations.

The IUCN cites Uganda's Bujagali dam to show that a different approach can avoid some of the adverse affects. The dam is being redesigned in consultation with all stakeholders, and displaced communities are to receive full compensation. A review showed the project to be compliant with the guidelines of the WCD, and it is less contentious than other dams under construction, which show serious and at times violent conflicts.

The IUCN's positive review of the WCD report led to the organization's commitment to implement the findings of the WCD where it relates to IUCN's mandate on biodiversity, sustainable development, and multi-stakeholder dialogues. At the same time, IUCN calls upon all parties involved in the WCD process, including the World Bank, to do the same.

"Financiers, builders, and planners must work with the WCD report. Especially the World Bank can do more on sustainable energy and infrastructure development. We believe that the forthcoming Water Resources Sector Strategy of the Bank must reflect its commitment to implement the WCD recommendations," said IUCN Director General Achim Steiner.

The IUCN strategy will promote discussion and application of the commission's recommendations by governments, financing institutions, donor agencies, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations.

It will also implement ecological rehabilitation projects in many rivers where the ecosystem is affected by the construction of dams, such as the Logone River in Cameroon, the Senegal River in Mauritania, and the Zambezi river in Southern Africa.

World Conservation Union Shapes Dam Mitigation Strategy
Environmental News Network, November 13, 2001

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