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By Farhan Sami, Head, Society, Economy and Environment Group, IUCN – The World Conservation Union, Pakistan Programme

By the year 2000, the world had built more than 45,000 large dams - to manage flood waters, to harness water as hydropower, to supply water to drink or for industry, or to irrigate fields. These have been important means of meeting needs for water and energy services and have served as long-term, strategic investments with the ability to deliver multiple benefits. Often, however, an unacceptable and unnecessary price has been paid to secure these benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.

Debate over the last fifty years has provided some understanding of the complex choices facing societies in meeting their water and energy needs and the role of large dams. But it has also highlighted the performance and the social and environmental impacts of large dams. In the late seventies, as the basis for decision-making became more open, inclusive and transparent globally, the decision to build large dams began to be increasingly contested, to the point where the future of large dam-building was in question. The enormous investments and widespread impacts of large dams saw conflicts flare up over the siting and impacts of large dams - both those in place and those on the drawing board.

Proponents pointed to social and economic development demands that dams meet, such as irrigation, electricity, flood control and water supply. Opponents pointed to adverse impacts, such as debt burden, cost overruns, displacement of people, destruction of ecosystems, and the inequitable sharing of costs and benefits. The breakdown of dialogue on the construction of dams - between NGOs, the private sector, governments and international organisations - imposed considerable costs on all parties.

In April 1997, representatives of diverse interests met in Gland, Switzerland with support from the World Bank and IUCN - The World Conservation Union, to discuss the role of large dams in development. The workshop brought together participants from governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, civil society organisations and affected people. Participants agreed upon the formation of an independent commission called the World Commission on Dams (WCD) with a mandate to review the development effectiveness of large dams and develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for large dams.

In order to cater to these growing and urgent needs, a project called the “World Commission on Dams – Consultative Process in Pakistan” has been executed jointly by IUCN – The World Conservation Union and the Pakistan Water Partnership under the guidance of the WCD Council and with the financial assistance of the Royal Netherlands Embassy.

The aim was to generate recommendations for policy reforms by analyzing, reviewing, and studying the Dams and Development Report of the WCD with particular reference to public policy in Pakistan. Further, the IUCN hoped to contribute to the formulation of a shared view around the current socio-economic and environmental issues that relate to water conservation, in general, and large dams, in particular.

The outputs of the project include the formation of a WCD Council, the organisation of six nation-wide consultative workshops on distinct themes, and the generation of a panel discussion on the core values of the WCD Report to develop policy recommendations. For the dissemination of the Report and its findings, a WCD website, a water portal, fact sheets, and a situational analysis of the water sector have been prepared, along with a translation into Urdu and Sindhi of selected sections of the Report. Most of this information is available at: www.wcdcpp.iucnp.org .

Six one-day, multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral national consultative workshops were organized under the WCD CPP at Quetta, Skardu, Lahore, Peshawar, Khalabut (Haripur) and Hyderabad by IUCNP and PWP. Each of the national workshops deliberated upon a distinct and independent theme of local importance, with the objective of reviewing WCD’s strategic priorities, guidelines and recommendations in the national context, and enabling participants to provide feedback on the WCD Report. The themes of these workshops were: 1. Water Management Options – Impacts on Land, Agriculture and Livelihoods; 2. Upstream Riparian Rights and the Context of Water Infrastructure Development; 3. Decision-making for Sustainable Investment in Water Sector Infrastructure Projects; 4. Integrated Flood Management Options to Reduce Vulnerability of Communities; 5. Mitigating Social Impacts of Large Dams; and 6. Environmental Flows Requirement – Impact on Aquatic Life, Biodiversity, Floodplains and Ecosystems. The workshops advocated consultative decision-making based on sound scientific principles and keeping in view national and local context, needs and opinions. Independent direction and strategic guidance was provided to the process by the WCD Council, which helped ensure its credibility and neutrality.

The Final outcome of the WCD CPP is a Draft Policy Brief that will synthesize the opinion of water experts, analyse the recommendations of the consultative process and incorporate the observations/recommendations of a policy gap analysis. The Policy Brief will evolve out of the umbrella framework of the current policies of Pakistan and provide a futuristic direction for sustainable water and development projects in Pakistan.

The WCD CPP project was based on the notion that water was everyone's business, especially since one use of water has repercussions for another. The workshops emphasized many elements and principles of vital importance to find balanced solutions to contentious water issues. The involvement of all relevant stakeholders and consideration of diverse viewpoints was encouraged. Participants were allowed to define problems, discuss issues of local importance, state their interests and try to evolve agreeable options for the improved management of water.