Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
my own experience as a scientist engaged in a large, interdisciplinary project designed to
create a computer model for understanding the effects of dams on ecosystems, communit-
ies, and geopolitical relations. Such an approach gives us a window into how different sci-
entific disciplines, each with its own epistemology, understand dams. It involves a close
look at how they value certain impacts over others, how they measure those impacts, and
how they conceive of trade-offs between multiple hydropower-development scenarios.
The international politics and policies of building large dams have changed considerably in
recent years, from a model in which international financial institutions such as the World
Bank took the lead in financing and expertise to a much more decentralized model driv-
en by national governments and private entities. Throughout this transformation, the hy-
dropower industry has found itself under intense scrutiny by citizens and activists from
around the world, who increasingly voice concern about the social and ecological costs of
dams. The WCD, an advisory body under the auspices of the World Bank and the World
Conservation Union, published a landmark study in 2000 that noted that although dams
had contributed significantly to human development over the years, their deleterious im-
pacts on social and environmental systems had long eluded meaningful scrutiny. Drawing
on the expertise of many scientific disciplines and a review of case studies from around the
world, the WCD released what it called Seven Strategic Priorities, areas in which both sci-
ence and decision making urgently needed to be improved: (1) gaining public acceptance
for hydropower projects; (2) conducting comprehensive options assessment for different
hydropower-development scenarios; (3) addressing the social and ecological problems of
existing dams; (4) sustaining rivers and livelihoods; (5) recognizing entitlements and shar-
ing benefits among stakeholders; (6) ensuring compliance with the best practices in the in-
dustry; and, somewhat obliquely, (7) sharing rivers for peace, development, and security.
The WCD's work calls into question many of the standard ways of measuring and eval-
uating the ecological and social costs of dams that have been around for decades, including
the tool parexcellence, cost-benefit analysis, which has historically overlooked orseverely
underestimated the long-term impacts of dams on local communities. But the WCD was a
temporary advisory body, not a regulatory agency; it was not endowed with any sort of en-
forcement authority, particularly in cases such as the Lancang and Nu River basins, where
dam projects are funded by domestic government agencies or corporations. The WCD's
success, limited though it has been, lies in the way that it has changed the international
conversation about dams, shedding light on the ways in which scientific experts and policy
makers evaluate the costs and benefits of major projects. At a more fundamental level, it
has reminded us that the most important questions surrounding hydropower development
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