Water Champion

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer: Caution and Care in Building Dams
August 2006

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Mr. Ramaswamy R. Iyer has had a long association with large-dam projects. In the 80s, he served as Secretary of Water Resources for the Government of India. As Secretary, he worked to shift the Ministry's attention from big projects to resource-policy issues. He was the initiator and principal draftsman of India's first National Water Policy in 1987. Mr. Iyer was a member of two high-level committees designated to review the environmental and displacement/rehabilitation aspects of the Sardar Sarovar Project (1993 - 95) and the Tehri Hydro-Electric Project (199697). He also served as a consultant to the World Commission on Dams (WCD) from 1998-2000, and joined the team commissioned to write a country study on India's experience with large dams. From 2000-2005, Mr. Iyer intermittently served as World Bank consultant for the review of its Water Sector Strategy. Mr. Iyer also serves as Honorary Research Professor for India's Centre for Policy Research, where he continues to educate people on matters relating to water resources (including the dams question), and to expound, clarify and analyze issues for the benefit of the general public, policy-makers, administrators, academics, media personnel and other opinion-makers. As a water expert, Mr. Iyer frequently appears on television and in conferences as speaker or panelist. He has also published a variety of articles in newspapers and journals. He published his first book entitled 'WATER: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns' in 2003, and is now in the middle of publishing his second book, tentatively titled `WATER: Limits, Justice, Harmony.'

Are big dams generally good or bad? Is it possible to have a simplistic "pro" or "against" stand in the dams debate? Big dams are major interventions in nature. They alter geography and local climate, have serious environmental/ecological consequences, and disrupt the lives and livelihoods of large numbers of people. They also involve questions of control, equity and social justice. As the World Commission on Dams (WCD) found out, their benefits (irrigation, hydro-electric power) often come at extremely high costs and go to one set of people, leaving another set to shoulder the social costs. I would therefore like to say "Yes, big dams are bad and should be avoided." Unfortunately, I can't. Large dams are one of the many features of the modern world. We can gather a lot of evidence against dams, but then we can do the same for other features of the modern world that pass for "development"— nuclear power plants, megalopolises, exploding automobile population, conversion of wetlands into urban centers, and so on. If we say "No" to big dams, we should be prepared to say "No" to those other things as well. But this requires a rethinking of what we see as "development," and at the moment, it is difficult to imagine such a radical exercise taking place.

As a second best solution, we should consider what can be done in practical terms and in limited contexts. From that point of view, and in the context of water resources, I think it is necessary to explore all non-dam possibilities of meeting future needs before we opt for large-dam projects. That is why I have been arguing that big-dam projects should be projects of the last resort, to be chosen only if they are the unique option, or the best of available options in a given case. What other key options are there before large dams? Instead of focusing primarily on the supply side of the equation, I believe we should focus on how we can limit the demand for water, increase the benefit from each unit of water, and minimize its wastage. This would lessen, although not rule out, the constant need to augment water available for use. Having said that, there are three ways in which water available for use can be augmented: rainwater-harvesting, groundwater drilling and large projects (for storage, i.e., dams and reservoirs, or for long-distance water transfers). Each of these would have its impacts and consequences. The impacts and consequences of large dams are fairly well known by now. In recent years, the reckless exploitation of groundwater and the consequent depletion and/or contamination of aquifers have begun to cause serious concern. Rainwater-harvesting has barely begun to be promoted, but some critics are already cautioning against extensive recourse to this. Obviously, if we say `No' to each of these three possibilities because of the negative aspects, we will face an impossible situation. It follows that a wise and prudent combination of all three would need to be adopted.

My own recommendation would be to treat local, community-led augmentation as the first choice, with big dams and long-distance water transfers as projects of the last resort. There should also be stringent regulation of groundwater extraction. What do you think are the most critical challenges facing large dam projects? When we talk about challenges, we usually imply that they have to be overcome. What large-dam projects are facing today are not `challenges' but serious questioning. They are being questioned on environmental/ecological grounds, and on what they do to human beings. There is great resistance to such projects, and rightly so. Such major interventions in nature and human lives should not have an easy passage. It should be for the proponents to establish that the harm that the project will do to people and nature is unavoidable; that there are no better options; and that the harm can be substantially remedied or mitigated or compensated. Such projects should undergo the most stringent scrutiny. What should be on top of the agenda of any country planning to embark on a large dam project? First, all options and alternatives must be examined. The largedam option should be chosen only if it is the unique one in the given case, or by far the best of available options. If that seems to be the case, then a rough outline should be prepared and placed before the people, particularly those who are likely to be adversely affected. The `rights and risks' approach recommended by the WCD should be adopted. The affected people should be involved in planning and decision-making right from the start. Simultaneously, environmental impact assessment studies (EIAs) should be started and made an integral part of project-preparation. EIAs should be completely independent of project planners and approving officials. In making choices out of options, `least environmental impact' and `minimum displacement' should be important criteria. What do you think are the Government of India's views on large dam projects? In the late 1980s, a degree of enlightenment was gradually beginning to emerge; there was a growing awareness of environmental and displacement problems in the context of big projects; new guidelines started appearing; and a debate began on a National Rehabilitation Policy. I remember participating in some early discussions on the subject when I was Secretary of Water Resources.

Unfortunately, the prolonged and bitter battle over the Narmada (Sardar Sarovar) Project and the increasing polarization of attitudes on the large dam controversy led to a hardening of official attitudes. This was unwittingly aggravated by the establishment of the WCD. The WCD was regarded with greater suspicion and hostility in India than in most other countries, and the Government of India's response to its Report (2000) was one of comprehensive rejection and the emphatic declaration of the intention of adding 200 billion cubic meters of storage in the ensuing 25 years. There was a strident re-assertion of the engineering point of view. Two decades of slow emergence of enlightened thinking were washed out against what was perceived as an international conspiracy to prevent India from developing. That hardening of attitudes remains to this day. What do you think of the World Commission on Dams report? I think the WCD did a good job and was quite unjustifiably attacked by some groups. The WCD Report did not say that dams were bad and should not be built. It merely said that decision-making in the past had been bad, and needed to be, improved; that while dams had brought some benefits, there had been unacceptable costs in many cases; and that the right thing to do in future would be to adopt a `rights and risks' approach. What that phrase meant was that we should ask "Whose rights are being affected by the project? Who is likely to bear the risks arising from the project?" The recommendation was that they should be fully involved in decision-making right from the earliest stages, and legally empowered to play their rightful role. The WCD also made a number of other recommendations to improve decision-making in the future. Those observations and recommendations may seem eminently sensible to many of us, but they seemed dangerous and subversive to some countries with big dam-building programs. From your extensive experience, what three messages would you like to highlight for our readers? First, let large dam projects be projects of the last resort, to be chosen only if no other acceptable option is available. Apply the criteria of `least environmental impact' and `minimum displacement'. Next, inform and involve the people likely to be affected right from the earliest stages, and make them part of the planning, decision-making, and implementing processes. Do everything by consent. Give them the first claim on the benefits of the project for which they are displaced. Finally, put the project through the most stringent scrutiny. Make the EIAs truly independent. Supplement the CostBenefit Analysis (CBA) with other kinds of assessments to take care of aspects that the CBA cannot catch.

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in August 2006: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/iyer.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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