Summary expert meeting Large Dams

Summary notes of the expert meeting Large dams at the nexus of energy, climate, food and water

In this session, panel members and participants debated the question on if and how large dams can be sustainable. The different panel members offered their unique perspective on this question: while some pointed at the necessity of good governance and well-defined mitigation measures as a prerequisite for dam construction, others questioned whether large dams can even be justified at all. During the debate that followed, topics such as governance, mitigation, capacity development, the role of the Dutch government and financial institutions were discussed in more detail.

After the the presentations by Daniëlle Hirsch (BothEnds), Frederik van Pallandt (FMO) and Susanne Schmeier (IHE Delft), the floor was opened for a plenary debate. Bartholomew Judd of the European Investment Bank joined the panel as its fourth member. Various topics were discussed:

  • Mitigation is often done quite poorly, and even if it is well done in the ESIA, the follow-up is lacking. Often the local partners do not have the structures to deal with these questions. The problem is that there is no politically binding follow-up. So that is where governance comes in: who follows up? Is there liability?
  • There is also a debate on ‘what is public interest?’ indigenous populations might disagree with whether a project serves this, but sometimes these populations are ignored. It is a tricky process if there are many different groups op indigenous peoples.
  • Are people really informed? The current ESIA system fails because it assumes that project starts after the permit. However, even during the planning there are already impacts. Who looks at this pre-permit period? And at these impacts? There should be capacity development on this field, including on high level. It is naïve to think that decision-makers are aware of what happens on the ground.
  • The local government is often the soft spot. Organizations such as FMO need to ensure that these rules are being followed. Some expressed doubt about whether this happens. And this is difficult, because of the long timeframes associated with hydropower. Governments can change a lot in 25 years. It is important to note that in a number of countries poor governance is simply related to lack of capacity. For example, in Laos there was not a single lawyer present in the ministry of energy when they had to discuss ESIA.
  • There was debate on whether the Dutch government should take an active role in discussing financing of large dams. On the one hand the Netherlands is a small player and therefore does not have much influence, on the other hand it can play a more neutral role. Perhaps the government can play a role in lobbying for long-term energy plans?
  • Should the government or NGOs support European banks which have safeguards, when compared to, for example, the Chinese financiers? Although European banks try their best and might have better safeguards, it is still not satisfactory.Some participants hesitated to say that they should be supported.