World Commission on Dams (WCD) Report

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The WCD Report was submitted in 2000. Although evoking a highly controversial debate the report represents a milestone in the history of dam development. It gives a general orientation and defines guidelines for the sustainable development of large dams. Many recommendations of the WCD Report have become customary practice.


The 1990s were marked by large protests and a conflicting debate about large dams. As an answer to the growing controversy many international donors withdraw their financial support and the World Bank reviewed its financially supported dam projects in 1996. The final report revealed that one quarter of the assessed projects didn’t comply with its own social, economic and environmental standards. As a first step to deal with these results the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) hosted a workshop in Gland, Switzerland. It took place in 1997 and gave the impetus to establish the World Commission on Dams (WCD).

The WCD was an independent commission under the chairmanship of Kader Asmal, the South African water minister. The mandate of the organization was to review the development effectiveness of large dams, to appraise alternative water and energy supplies and to develop internationally accepted criteria and guidelines for decision-making concerning dams. The twelve WCD members, both opponents and supporters, were chosen from a variety of backgrounds in industry, academia, governments and civil society. The members served in a personal capacity, not as representatives of their institution or country. In two and a half years the commission evaluated with the help of experts more or less 1,000 dams in 79 countries. The mandate ended in November 2000 with the WCD report: Dams and Development. A new framework for decision-making.[1]

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The WCD Report[2]

The WCD report acknowledges the contribution of dams to human development, but also notes the severe and often unnecessary impacts in numerous cases. Above all, the environment and the people replaced or living downstream often have to cope with destroyed lifelihoods and ecosystems.

To avoid the negative impacts the WCD presented a framework for new dam projects which gives priority to risk assessment and recognition of rights.

The report is divided into two parts:
• a global review of large dams concerning their social, economic, ecological and technical problems and impacts
• The second part (The Way Forward) provides recommendations in form of five core values, seven strategic priorities, and 26 guidelines. They serve as guidance to all involved in a dam project and aim to facilitate decision-making in the planning, design, construction, monitoring, operation and decommissioning of dams.

The WCD identified five core values as an overall basis for decision-making: equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability.

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Recognition of Rights and Risk Assessment

The report recognizes that the perspective on development has changed in time and that past decisions may have been made based on a different understanding of development. Nonetheless, in order to avoid negative impacts, todays understanding of development has to be reflected in the decision-making framework.
The WCD's findings illustrate that development choices in the past are based on cost and benefit trade-offs. It is acknowledged today, that this approach neither captures the complexity of interests involved, nor can it adequately reflect the different options in a broader context of sustainable development. Therefore, the commission advocates that all relevant rights are taken into account, from constitutional rights, customary rights and property rights over rights of developers and investors, to the rights on different scales (local, basin, regional and national).

Moreover, the WCD report aims to broaden the definition of risk. Traditionally, risk assessment was mostly restricted to the risk of the developer or corporate investor in terms of the capital invested and expected returns. However, besides these voluntary risk takers, there is often a far larger group having risks imposed on them involuntarily. These risks may affect their individual well-being, livelihood, quality of life, even their spiritual world view or their very survival. Therefore, the WCD recommends the assessment of all risks which may be connected to the project and a rights-based approach. To implement the recommendations, a legal and procedural framework is required, which ensures a free and informed process of negotiation, provides for arbitration, recourse and appeal mechanisms ensuring equitable adjudication in cases where negotiated settlements are not achievable. Negotiated agreements become part of the project compliance framework.

The WCD states that the overall objective of the planning procedure should be to carefully analyse options, gain public acceptance, ensure a fair negotiation, and a just distribution of the benefits of a project. Furthermore, the Commission lists seven strategic priorities for an equitable and sustainable development of water and energy resources. All seven priorities are supported by policy principles:

Strategic Priority 1: Gaining Public Acceptance
1. Stakeholder analysis
2. Negotiated decision-making processes
3. Free, prior and informed consent

Strategic Priority 2: Comprehensive Options Assessment
4. Strategic Impact Assessment for environmental, social, health and cultural heritage issues
5. Project-level impact assessment for environmental, social, health and cultural heritage issues.
6. Multi-criteria analysis
7. Life-cycle assessment
8. Greenhouse gas emissions
9. Distributional analysis of projects
10. Valuation of social and environmental impacts
11. Improving economic risk assessment

Strategic Priority 3: Addressing Existing Dams
12. Ensuring operating rules reflect social and environmental concerns
13. Improving reservoir operations

Strategic Priority 4: Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods
14. Baseline ecosystem surveys
15. Environmental flow assessment
16. Maintaining productive fisheries

Strategic Priority 5: Recognizing Entitlements and Sharing Benefits
17. Baseline social conditions
18. Impoverishment risk analysis
19. Implementation of the mitigation, resettlement and development action plan
20. Project benefit sharing mechanisms

Strategic Priority 6: Ensuring Compliance
21. Compliance plans
22. Independent review panels for social and environmental matters
23. Performance bonds
24. Trust funds
25. Integrity pact

Strategic Priority 7: Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development and Security
26. Procedures for shared rivers

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Impact Assessment

Many of the identified problems of past dams have their origin in the absence of proper impact assessment procedures during the planning phase or in inadequate compliance with the impact assessment recommendations.

The report recommends a comprehensive assessment of risks implied by a project, including environmental, social, health, impoverishment, and cultural heritage risks. In this approach socio-economic, demographic and health-benchmark surveys of all adversely affected populations must be completed and publicly reviewed prior to drafting mitigation, resettlement and development plans.
The Commission recommends Strategic Assessment as a crucial step, because it covers entire sectors, programs and policies. This facilitates project-oriented impact assessment. The report describes the elements of such an assessment in detail. The impact assessment process should culminate in a series of written agreements with those entities that are required to implement mitigation; development or compensation plans, or respond to impacts. The scope of these agreements must be fully defined prior to tendering for construction.

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Response to the WCD Report

The commission provided the most comprehensive collection of guidelines up to today. There was a wide support for the core values and the strategic priorities. However, various stakeholders expressed their concerns about the implementation of the policy principles and detailed guidelines. In this regard, stakeholders from the industry or finance institutions chose not to embrace the WCD ideas. They worried that the guidelines were set too stringently and therefore, difficult to put into practice. Some feared that they would overload the planning process and that the high standards would put an end to all dams in construction. A few recommendations like “free, prior, informed, consent” for indigenous people could be difficult to implement without further guidance. Others criticized the neglect of the positive aspects of dams in the final discussion.[3] Despite the critic, international banks, like the World Bank, have adapted many recommendations in their safeguards, targeting many concerns raised by the WCD.[4]

Although most of the developing countries rejected the WCD recommendations, many hold national dam dialogues with the relevant stakeholders of dam activities and thereby some recommendations were put into practice.

Moreover, in 2001 the Dams and Development Project (DDP) was established to help putting the recommendations into operation and to raise and support global and national dam dialogues. The DDP was hosted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Its mandate ended 2007. As follow up a multi stakeholder process has been set up together with the industry, NGOs and government representatives to negotiate common sustainability assessment criteria shared by all stakeholder (see Hydropower Sustainability Assessment).

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Further Information


Micro Hydro Power (MHP) does not compare with Hydroelectric powerplants by dams.

Its Energy output is smaller by magnitudes, its decentral, does not have the negative environmental or social impacts which often come with the building of Dams.

Nevertheless it is the same principle: tapping falling water as energy source.


  1. Fink, M. & Cramer, A. 2008, Towards Implementation of the World Commission on Dams Recommendations Experiences and Reflections After 5 Years in Water Politics and Development Cooperation, eds W Scheumann, S Neubert & M Kipping, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 33-54.
  2. World Commission on Dams 2000, Dams and development. A new framework for decision-making. The Report of the World Commission on Dams, Earthscan, London.
  3. Moore, D, Dore, J & Gyawali, D 2010, ‘The World Commission on Dams + 10: Revisiting the Large Dam Controversy‘, Water Alternatives, vol.3, no.2, pp. 3-13.
  4. Briscoe, J 2010, ‘Viewpoint – Overreach and Response: The Politics of the WCD and its Aftermath’, Water Alternatives, vol.3, no.2, pp. 399-415.