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No Short-Cuts in Water Politics

Ever since the environmental and social damage that inevitably accompany dams has been apparent, the notion of building new dams has been fraught with controversy.Campesinos from surrounding Cusco protesting the national government’s decision to build a dam in their area.  Katherine BruderCampesinos from surrounding Cusco protesting the national government’s decision to build a dam in their area. Katherine Bruder

That’s because along with the unavoidable harm can come a great deal of good, particularly for poorer nations in desperate need of the food and electricity a new dam can deliver.

It’s a dilemma both for developing countries (which have pressing need of new dams to support economic growth), and the developed countries which have the resources to fund those dams.

Yet for former World Bank expert John Briscoe, the case for the dams ultimately held sway after, in his view, a determined group of environmental activists almost succeeded in blocking any developing country from ever building another dam as part of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) process.

Briscoe makes no bones about his disquiet about the effort. It was, as he saw it, a "breathtakingly audacious and ruthless bid by self-anointed extremists who styled themselves as representatives of global civil society and who were expert at playing the kind of Machiavellian games required to stop poorer countries' dam-building efforts in their tracks.”
These are strong words indeed, and certainly many have criticised his stance. But Briscoe firmly believes that had those efforts succeeded, they would have harmed developing world economic growth and poverty reduction initiatives. In what he calls a case of "arrogance and overreach," he believes they also would have effectively deprived if-not-elected then certainly accountable governments in developing countries of the ability to freely to make decisions in defiance of the will of anti-dam NGOs accountable to no-one bar their fellow advocates.

Briscoe, Gordon Mckay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering at Harvard University, has been focussed on the issues of water and economic development for the last 40 years. He has 20 years in a variety of policy and operational positions in the World Bank under his belt, lastly as Senior Water Advisor. In a stance that has made him the bête noire of some environmental activists, he is, he happily acknowledges, widely credited with first creating and then destroying the WCD.

And he sees the story of the evolution of the WCD he helped to birth, what he describes as its “hijacking” by anti-dam NGOs and the rejection by every dam-building country in the world of the 26 Guidelines it proposed (and the NGOs sought to impose), as a warning against the hijacking of water management responsibility by unaccountable, single-issue groups. To his mind, it also showcases the wilful “hypocrisy” of some of the more extreme environmentalists in the developed world.

Prof. John BriscoeProf. John BriscoeHypocrisy because, he says, no developed country has achieved its prosperity without investing heavily in efforts to lift agricultural productivity and to create the energy, transport and water infrastructure needed for economic growth and employment generation. No mountainous country has become rich without tapping most of its hydroelectric potential.

"Infrastructure may not be a sufficient condition for poverty reduction, but it is undeniably a necessary condition," Briscoe argues. "Every country which succeeded in improving the lot of the poor in recent decades, including China, India and Brazil, has done so partly by driving infrastructure development. Take just one example - every rich country in the world today has developed more than 70 per cent of its economically-viable hydro-electric potential. Africa has developed just five per cent and poor countries with large hydropower resources like Nepal have developed less than one per cent."

The numerous dams built by most rich countries have played a major role in fuelling economic growth, Briscoe points out. It is one reason why arid nations like the US and Australia, with around 5000 m3 of storage capacity for every citizen, fare so well compared to countries like India and Pakistan, with just 150 m3, and why India and Pakistan do better than Ethiopia and Kenya, with their scant 50 m3 per head.
It’s a lesson Briscoe charges some in the first-world of being determined to overlook as, their infrastructure comfortably in place, they have worked to impose a strict water infrastructure diet on poorer nations. He notes that by the 1990s the sway of prominent US water intellectuals and environmental activists had proved so great that the World Bank, once the major investor in hydropower in the developing world, had basically exited the water infrastructure business.

That helped fuel formation of the WCD in April 1997 to research the environmental, social and economic impacts of the development of large dams around the world. Its membership included representatives from academia, the private sector, professional associations and one government representative.

Briscoe says the WCD arose for both substantive and political reasons. The substantive reason was that major interventions like dams create winners and losers, and have major impacts on the economy, some groups of people and the environment. For decades the economic benefits were so obvious that little heed was paid to negative impacts, particularly “the devastating effects which unmanaged resettlement had on millions of poor people.”

That all began to change when those deeply concerned about the social effects joined forces with environmental activists with a “special animus” for dams, in the words of American environmental writer John McPhee.

Their concerns inevitably butted against the stance of political leaders of the developing world who strongly support the need for dams in their countries.

Inevitable Backlash

The apotheosis of such efforts was reached with the “elegant and beautifully written” 2003 WCD report, with its perfectly reasonable "Shared Values" and "Strategic Priorities" and its 26 Guidelines, some of them, Briscoe accuses, representing “extraordinary flights of fancy.”

He cites as amongst the most contentious an insistence that indigenous people be given a de facto veto right over any proposed dam and that international financial institutions fund no new dam before 'legacy issues' on all prior dams were resolved (a requirement entirely without precedent). Equally controversial was the insistence that countries not in 'good faith dialogue on shared rivers' with all their neighbours be denied funding from development banks for any purpose in any way related to water.

The backlash was swift and in Briscoe’s eyes, should have been predictable. It has included a revolt by the rapidly growing middle income countries (MICs), including China, India, and Brazil who vehemently reject this "post-affluent" stance and who are increasingly going it alone. Meanwhile, poor countries are left to “rail at the hypocrisy of the rich countries,” in Briscoe’s words.

It has also seen China move to fill the gap left by the US and other rich nations. China is currently supporting construction of more than 200 dams in Africa and Asia.

To Briscoe the lesson is clear: hijacking of the politics of water can lead to poor and unpredictable outcomes and must be avoided.

Meanwhile he notes recent major advances in water management and science in Australia are putting contemporary US efforts to shame. He told a recent Senate Inquiry that Australia over the last decade had done something which no other country could conceivably have managed: “in a large irrigated agricultural economy (the Murray Darling Basin) a 70 per cent reduction in water availability had very little aggregate economic impact. ... this extraordinary achievement is, in my view, the single most important water fact of the 21st century, because it shows that it is possible (with ingenuity and investment) to adapt to rapid climate change and associated water scarcity.”

It’s an example, he says, which other nations would do well to follow.

Further Reading:

Briscoe J. (2010) Practice and Teaching of American Water Management in a Changing World (Editorial) (2010-07-00) Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management
Briscoe, J. 2010. Viewpoint – Overreach and response: The politics of the WCD and its aftermath. Water Alternatives 3(2): 399-415
Briscoe, Two Decades at the Center of World Water Policy, Interview by J. Delli Priscoli (ed.), Water Policy 13, 147–160 (2011).

Briscoe, J., Submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into the Provisions of the Water Act 2007,