Apr 06 - 12, 2009

Traditional assessments of dams have focused on their economic direct costs, the investment to build it and the annual costs of operating it, and sought to compare this with the direct benefits expected from the stream of services (water, power, flood protection. etc.) that the dam will provide. However, most economic assessments tend to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. Particularly, they argue that economic assessments tend to overlook indirect and opportunity costs to environments and people (e.g. floodplain environmental impacts, loss of natural resources, loss of production opportunities, forced resettlement, social dislocation, etc.), and they fail to deal adequately with non-quantifiable socio-cultural costs. To a lesser degree, economic assessments may also fail to account for some indirect benefits (e.g. local jobs, improved services, local economic growth, benefits of lower food prices, reduced flood damage, or reduced impacts from alternative development options, e.g. pollution from coal power stations. Further, many impacts are experienced differentially by genders. Economists conventionally treat 'the household' as the fundamental unit within which resources are shared and allocated, but there can be significant structuring within the household, particularly by gender. The planning of dams and the analysis of their impacts has tended to ignore gender, as if differences between men and women in the household, community, or nation simply do not exist. As Mehta and Srinivasan in 1999, wrote in their review:

People affected by dams are not conventionally distinguished by gender;

The household is treated as a single unit, and not understood in terms of gender;

The family is often treated as an undifferentiated unit with convergent interests.

The community earmarked for either compensation or benefits, is viewed as homogenous with male members usually being targeted by dam planners.

Women's needs and interests require a specific priority focus in policy if development is to yield truly gender-justice (Mehta and Srinivasan 1999).

Among all impact as discovered by the dam's surveyors, the downstream impacts have been the Cinderella: unrecognized, misunderstood and underestimated by planners. One reason for this is that they occur in remote areas, far from the dam site, and are all too easily ignored. Even when recognized, downstream impacts are daunting in their complexity in space and time. Downstream impacts involve a change in a dynamic element of the environment (variable river flows within and between years) rather than a gross change (a lake where there used to be dry land). A critical problem therefore is the issue of uncertainty. There is inevitably a high degree of uncertainty in predicting the nature of the downstream environmental impacts of dams at any given point in space and time. A key challenge is how to convey the fact of this uncertainty to stakeholders and decision makers, and how to devise planning frameworks that consider it.

William Adams of University of Cambridge, UK has suggested five principles in his paper titled "Downstream Impacts of Dams" prepared for World Commission on Dams Thematic Review: January 2000 that indicates how downstream dam planners could consider impacts.

Analysis of the impacts of dams should be holistic, in spatial, social, and economic senses: Dams should not be considered as projects isolated from their broader basin contexts. Assessments of the impacts of dams must include specific consideration of all affected people including those living downstream whose subsistence depends on the natural flow of the river and its associated natural resources. These assessments must take specific account of gender.

A programme to monitor and periodically re-examine the impacts of dam development in downstream communities should be an integral element of the planning process, and should be matched by resources to mitigate impacts not addressed fully by the planning process. Human rights and key socio-economic parameters need to be monitored, at least along the river valley in the early years of dam operation. These parameters should be disaggregated enough in order to capture and address imbalances in the distribution of socio-economic costs and benefits of dams. It is important to generate gender-specific indicators that take into account the varied locations of men and women at all levels of society.

All people who depend on the natural flow of the river and its associated natural resources for their subsistence should be adequately compensated for losses resulting from dam construction, or be among the primary recipients of benefits generated. The existence of an overall balance between positive and negative impacts should not be taken as the only criteria of a project's acceptability. The distribution of costs and benefits is also important and heavily impacted groups (especially those downstream) should not bear uncompensated costs without balancing benefits.

The individual and community rights of populations to be affected by the planned dam's construction should be recognized in assessing potential losses and in devising mitigation measures, whether these rights are codified or informal, whether they relate to ownership or usufruct rights. Often ignorance of customary law can undermine the existing rights that women, indigenous people, or other traditionally marginalized groups have over resources, in particular common property resources. Cost benefit analysis should be broadened to include intangible social and cultural impacts.

Project planning should allow for the participation of people affected by project development in downstream areas. It is a challenge for two reasons, first because of the technical complexity (and cost) of dam design, and secondly because of the large and diverse communities affected by dams. However, while the principle of participation may require new approaches to planning, this needs to happen. Authentic and effective participation must take place in a way and at a time when decisions about the project and mitigation of its impacts can be influenced. Cost/benefit analyses should be balanced by participatory forms of planning involving all actors where all have a say in determining and assessing the nature of the costs and benefits and their effects on their lives, livelihoods and environment, and the nature of mitigation.