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Diluted norms

by Peter Bosshard
Large projects such as dams need binding standards. Otherwise, affected people will suffer, and so will the environment. New recommendations promoted by the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum, an industry-led initiative, fall back behind the framework developed by the World Commission on Dams. [ By Peter Bosshard ]

Vague commitments will not do when
it comes to controversial mega-pro -
jects. This was the lesson from social and
environmental disasters on the Narmada
and Yangtse rivers and at Yacyreta. In the
1990s, many governments and financial
institutions thus defined binding rules
concerning environmental assessment,
compensation of displaced people and
fighting corruption.

In its final report of 2000, the World
Commission on Dams (WCD) embraced the
rights of affected people. Along with better
risk assessment, this approach could lead
to better and more legitimate decisions.
Germany supported the concept of turning
affected people from passive victims or
beneficiaries into active negotiators.
The dam industry never warmed to the
WCD principles. In 2007, the International
Hydropower Association and other stakeholders
created the Hydropower Sustainability
Assessment Forum (HSAF). The Forum’s
goal is to “develop a broadly endorsed
sustainability assessment tool” for
hydro projects by the end of 2009. The German
government agency GTZ participates
in HSAF as an observer and is one of its
main funders.

The HSAF is currently preparing a new
Sustainability Assessment Protocol with
guidelines on more than 80 aspects. The
hydropower industry hopes that this
proto col can replace the WCD framework
as the most legitimate benchmark for dam
projects. In particular, the industry hopes
it will be able to attract public subsidies
and carbon credits for dams which meet
HSAF guidelines.

The HSAF approach differs substantially
from the WCD framework. A recently
published interim report neither includes
minimum standards, nor does it meet current
World Bank standards. It dilutes accepted
principles as follows:
– The HSAF does not insist on hydro projects
meeting national laws, human
rights and international conventions.
Rather, it considers it sufficient to merely
assess the “degree of conformance”
with relevant national and international
norms.
– The HSAF ignores the right of indigenous
peoples to free, prior-informed consent
to projects that affect their land. Instead,
it proposes to assess project managers’
“understanding (of indigenous
peoples’) legal rights”.
– The HSAF wants to take into account the
quality of a project’s communication
strategy, but does not insist on the right
of affected people to information.
The HSAF does not require land-for-land
compensation, or any other compensation,
but merely proposes to measure the
“level of compliance with resettlement
legislation and standards requirement”.
– The HSAF does not define any minimum
labour standards (such as the freedom to
unionise), but only proposes to take into
account the “quality of the labor management
system”.
– The HSAF does not foresee any environmental
no-go areas such as national
parks or cultural heritage sites. Instead,
it only proposes to account for the “quality
of plans to manage for biodiversity
and conservation objectives”.
– The HSAF does not propose any basinwide
approach to dam planning or an
assessment of cumulative environmental
impacts.

It is telling that the HSAF has so far proceeded
without respect for the rights of affected
people. Unlike the WCD, the Forum
is a self-selected body. It does not include
any representatives from civil society in developing
countries or affected people.

GTZ has insisted that civil-society activists
at least be consulted. A consultation
exercise began in January, in the second half
of the HSAF’s projected life span. However,
funds are not sufficient to seriously involve
the people whose rights are at stake. The
HSAF will not lead to greater acceptance of
hydropower projects – but only to new conflicts.