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17 November 2000

Press Briefing



Large dams were never simply good or bad, but they often came at too high a price in negative effects on people and the environment, Kadel Asmal, Chairman of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), told correspondents at a Headquarters Press Conference this morning.

At the briefing, Mr. Asmal introduced the WCD's new report entitled, "Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making," which had been enthusiastically welcomed at its launch in London yesterday. It was to be presented to the Secretary-General and Member States at Headquarters today. Joining Mr. Asmal at the briefing were Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Dumisani Kumalo, the Permanent Representative of South Africa, and Achim Steiner, Secretary-General of the WCD. The report was meant to be used as a guide to assessing the overall societal effects of new dam projects.

The report was also, said Mr. Asmal, the first real example of the kind of partnership requested by the Secretary-General, in which the efforts of government, civil society, and the private sector were combined. And it took place in a very contentious arena. There had been extreme polarities on the issue, with no possibility of dialogue, to the extent that international agencies and finance corporations avoided dam projects altogether.

"We recognize that dams have given considerable benefits, long before the term sustainable development had been invented," Mr. Asmal said. They were an integral part of water utilization policy. Mr. Topfer added that, currently, 45,000 large dams generated over 19 per cent of the world's electricity, produced $38 billion in economic activity, and also figured into food production and other essential activities.

On the other hand, said Mr. Amal, recent dam projects had also displaced an estimated 40-80 million people, irrevocably changed the natural environment, and strained tax funds through large cost overruns. They often had their highest negative impact on the most vulnerable populations, the indigenous peoples, who were also the most inarticulate in defending their interests. In redressing that fact, the old assessment methods of cost/benefit analysis and trade-offs were inherently useless, as the most vulnerable usually suffered in the trade-offs. Instead, the new framework's goal was determining the best development decision every time for every one.

In order to create impartial criteria for that purpose, all interested parties, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international finance corporations, were involved in elaborating the composition of the Commission in an intricate process that took over a year. The Commission then took two years to produce the report. It first looked at the effects of eight dams in detail, and derived 16 or 17 basic issues. It then looked at 150 more dams to refine its method, and finally looked at hundreds more to build up a knowledge base of empirical evidence. Working independently but transparently, it also incorporated information from 970 papers submitted.

Dams Press Conference - 2 - 17 November 2000

The result was acceptable to all the parties, said Mr. Asmal. And it broached the overriding issue of how to implement sustainable development. The report was not only for government officials or the United Nations. "In the end," he said, "it was meant as an exercise in democratic decision-making, about good governance, about people's sense of development. It was about decision- making reflecting the needs of the community."

Mr. Topfer said that the WCD report succeeded in that regard by considering, in combination, the three main rights of people: human rights, the right to development, the right to a healthy environment. For that reason, yesterday's launch drew the attendance of such leaders as the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, officials from the World Bank, and other actors from diverse areas. The report was also a prime example of cooperation within the United Nations system. The UNEP had secured funding from the Turner Foundation, as well as contributing ecological expertise.

A correspondent asked how quickly governments might review the document and make changes. Was there a recommended timetable? Mr. Asmal replied that, already, two governments had said they would meet in January to work in a concerted way. He had actually asked professional bodies, particularly the dam- building industry, to not act right away, but instead, to take time to consider the report.

Over the next four or five months, he said, he would be working on getting the document adopted by the bodies to whom it was addressed, such as the World Bank and NGOs. It should be playing a major role by the time of next year's General Assembly session. At the same time, it would also be a factor in influencing public opinion. It was addressed to everyone.

Mr. Topfer added that, in February of next year, UNEP planned to organize a workshop on the implementation of the Commission's recommendations, as a scheduled follow-up to the Commission's activities.

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For information media. Not an official record.