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More Crop per Drop and Dams on Demand? Implications for the 21st Century

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Ian Curtis,Department for International Development


David Seckler, International Water Management Institute
Achim Steiner, World Commission on Dams

1. Ian Curtis opened the meeting by emphasising the growing energy and enthusiasm surrounding what was going to happen in The Hague and the significance of the process of consultation in the lead-up. Introducing David Seckler, the director-general of IWMI, he outlined his range of prior experience with Winrock International, the Ford Foundation, and in academia. IWMI, he said, had published important research in recent years on ‘more crop per drop’ (water use efficiency) and on water modelling. The second speaker, Achim Steiner, Secretary-General of World Commission on Dams based in Cape Town, had previously worked through GTZ for the Mekong River Commission and at IUCN. He also had valuable experience at both ‘ends of the scale’ in water resources.

2. Seckler described his involvement in the dams issue as stemming from work on ‘both sides’ – including in the US and India, helping to defeat a large dam project in the former and championing another project in the latter in Haryana state, where poor people had become ‘flush’ with grain following the development of irrigation. Moving onto the main body of his talk he said that in the past three years, IWMI (part of the CGIAR system), had been looking at world water supply and demand to 2025 as part of the global water vision process leading up to The Hague, which he previewed.

3. Outlining the future scenarios produced by this research for 2025 he projected that some 33% of the world’s population would be in absolute physical water scarcity (covering all needs); 45% would have to import around 10% of their cereal needs; leaving 22% who would have no problems and would have sufficient money to import, of need be. Water supply as a critical factor, therefore, could be understood as a problem of storage in time and conveyance in space. IWMI estimated that in order to meet all requirements by 2025, to replenish ground water, and to replace the 1% of dams per year going out of commission through sedimentation there was a need for a 41% increase (amounting to some 860 bcm) in storage (+/- a 25% margin of error) by 2025.

4. Moving on to the best means of storage he suggested there were three options: 1) large dams; 2) medium/small dams 3) or ground water recharge. Weighing up relative benefits and costs he said that small dams, (irrigating a large part of South Asia) had the advantage of local community control of delivery and timings which could double or triple the yield of crops, but which were dependent on rainfall and could store enough water only for about six months. They also lost an enormous percentage of their storage to evaporation (having low surface to volume ratios) and consequently were less drought-proof. Third, and perhaps most significant, they submerged more land per unit of water stored than big dams (about a ratio of 1ha of land to 1ha of irrigation). Potentially, therefore, small dams could displace more people than big dams and lose more water to evaporation. Groundwater storage, had neither problem but required energy to lift the water, which could be provided ‘on demand’, giving ‘more crop per drop’. The key lay in tailoring the right mix of large and small dams and groundwater recharge. Potential synergies existed, for instance, in combining large and small dams, where a large dam delivers to smaller dams downstream and then the farmers manage their own water (he cited examples from China and Sri Lanka).

5. But how could we increase ‘crop per drop’ of water delivered? Identifying the huge increase in yields caused by the Green Revolution, which reduced the growing season by about a third, lowering significantly evapo-transpiration loss, he highlighted: 1) water control to increase yields; 2) water recycling for use in irrigation or other areas 3) and more ‘precise’ irrigation methods.

6. Following the presentation initial questions were taken including how much ground water recharge cost and how it was done. The best way, he said, was by ‘inefficient irrigation’, namely putting more water on the land than required by the crop (if soils were permeable enough).

7. Achim Steiner then began his presentation with two overarching points namely that dams could not be discussed in the plural, nor without including their context. Dams, he said, were ‘a means to an end’, and the debate was about whether the end was met or not, rather than the ‘concrete poured’, as he put it. He described the current time as an ‘inflationary period’ in water debates arising out of the Earth Summit in Rio and Agenda 21, the Dublin principles, and the establishment of the Global Water Partnership, and the World Water Commission. Societies were, in effect, trying to ‘grapple’ with the issue of scarce resources management and the development options available. Dams had become such an issue because of the many vested interests involved, including the construction industry (estimated by John Briscoe of the World Bank to be worth about $65bn a year). It was also a time of new expressions in relation to water – including ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘virtual’ water. He contextualised the dams debate in terms of wider sustainable development and asked why had dams become so ‘emblematic’ for so many of the debates that we conduct around the issue of development?

8. To answer this question it was necessary to refer back to the title of the talk and ask ‘whose demand’? Of the estimated 800,000 dams world-wide some 45,000 were large, although the precise figures were hard to arrive at. About half of the large dams were in China (although officially only around 5,000 are listed). On the plus side they could deliver massive benefits, even to the point of being an ‘imperative to act’, he said. Nevertheless, whilst producing massive benefits there were also significant costs, and two ‘constituencies of interest’ rarely came together in constructive dialogue. Rather dams were being used as vehicles for wider debates.

9. Moving on to the WCD itself, he outlined its origins in the logic of the powerful arguments surrounding dams – i.e. more water for irrigation more food crops, a need for more energy production (clean and renewable), numerical progression from more people, to more need for water supply and for flood control – being confronted by an increasingly sceptical public. Society was no longer convinced that dams were a major part of that strategy. There were, he continued, essentially two ways of addressing this scepticism: 1) explain the facts; 2) or conduct more research challenging the assumptions. Important questions included whose projection of demand was being used in determining ‘water scarcity’; and, in spite of the attractions post Kyoto of hydropower, were there other alternatives? Were reservoirs themselves a methane-generating phenomenon? The clash of interests, in effect, had, he said, ‘obfuscated’ the answering of important questions in decision making.

10. Reflecting this perceived need, the WCD was a ‘unique and volatile’ experiment arising out of an ‘unusual partnership’ between the IUCN and the World Bank. A workshop held in 1997 with 37 representatives from all sides of the debate, had agreed on the need to set up an independent review and to work together in setting up a commission, bringing ‘arch enemies’, as he put it, together. The WCD established included 12 eminent people, including the anti Narmada dam leader, the chairperson and CEO of ABB representing the interests the construction industry, a leading resettlement specialist, and an indigenous person’s perspective. The WCD was, he said, a ‘virtual body’, but was funded from all sides. Its work – a reflection of the world looking at ways of developing global public policy – would finish in August 2000.

11.From his perspective the dams debate could inform the broader sustainable development discourse, including the difficulty in integrating the economic, social and environmental issues with distribution and equity. The WCD sought to 1) gathering together all the evidence; i) building new ways of decision making, ii) understanding risk management iii) and how to reward risk avoidance and follow best practice; and 2) address the rights issues, including the embedding of individualisation of rights and the right to development indecision making.

12. Concluding his presentation, he posed the main question which the WCD addressed: how does society best negotiate whether dams are a development option and how to develop suitable structures for facilitating negotiation, given that there was ‘no question’ that dams would be needed in the future?

13. The ensuing discussion covered a number of theoretical and practical points. The discussion began with a question Narmada – yes or no? And why? David Seckler’s ‘yes’, because the ratio of benefits to costs meant 100-200,000 people would be displaced and about 2-3m would substantially benefit was qualified with the disastrous nature of the resettlement aspect of the project (even by the World Bank’s own internal procedures and standards). Achim Steiner refused to be drawn, but said that the Narmada story hid a ‘fault-line’ along which India was trying to decide what it means by sustainable and equitable development. Promises were made that, based on past experience, had not been met. To ignore these issues and push through a scheme such as this would be ‘very difficult’, he said. In the end the issue is how India views the costs and benefits of using dams - based on past experience - as a vehicle for development. Asked later what the role of the WCD had been, he stated that he expected that it would have no immediate role in resolving this debate. In fact the WCD had been prevented from holding its regional consultation in India precisely because of the Narmada issue, and, in any case, the WCD had little scope to assist in the current climate of confrontation because the debate had gone ‘way beyond’ the Narmada issues and had become a political conflict at a national level involving the supreme court.

14. On the role of GM crops and other recent scientific advances, the speakers were asked whether their predictions on water, demand, etc took this into account? Seckler replied that GM crops would be important for disease resistance, etc, but did not believe that at this stage yields would be raised by new GM crops, or other advances. He suggested that many crops had in fact reached ‘yield plateaux’. Yield was most directly correlated with fertiliser use and Europe, for instance, had reached such high yields through exceptionally high fertiliser use (which could also create massive pollution problems).

15. Asked about the trade-off between short-term political decisions and long-term requirements of water resources management and planning, Achim Steiner emphasised how the tools of irrigation efficiency were known but that implementation was a political and institutional problem. And very little has been achieved because of the lack of political will. In South Africa political will came through massive political change with the removal of land-related water rights and the enshrining of basic needs. He cautioned that there was no technical fix, however, rather there was a need to create the right politics. Commenting on this point Tony Allan highlighted the importance of ‘windows of opportunity’ - either determined environmentally or provided by political change (e.g. that occurring in South Africa).

16. What were the barriers to the South increasing yields? David Seckler, stated that yields would only have to go up by 40% to cover needs, but that yield and capital expenditure were very closely correlated. Making yield projections was very difficult, Achim Steiner argued, citing, as an example, the volatility of oil prices in the last year as a potentially important variable. Scenarios beyond six months may also miss the way societies react to events and that perhaps rather than water being the major constraint it was, in fact, the question of whether social parameters remained the same, or not. The key to social change, he argued, would be the processes by which society negotiates of change.

17. Final questions included the question of women’s empowerment, population increase and food production being related, governance as a key point missed and the issue of China’s approach. Steiner said that China was the world’s major builder OF DAMS partly driven by the massive urbanisation underway. Nevertheless, the Chinese government was amongst the world’s most dynamic policy reformers and had one of the quickest and evolving resettlement policies, which included recognising the need to plan resettlement with communities. In addition a real lesson-learning process was on-going revealing dynamic policy reform over issues such as dams for flood control, now recognised as not a long-term solution, rather solutions lay upstream in watershed management. On governance, the WCD avoided the term because ‘governance’ was value-laden to some extent. The key lay in managing trade-offs under different settings for efficiency and in establishing the efficiency criteria that should be used. Do you trade off environment against electricity generation, for instance? Asked about the question of decommissioning, this was included in the overview of the WCD and it was increasingly important in countries such as the US where environmental standards, priorities and perceptions of costs had changed.

18. In conclusion the importance of dams as ‘vehicles for wider debates’ was stressed central to which was the question of issues of development. Ian Curtis added that the access of poor people to water in these debates remained a critical issue.


This event discussed the growing energy and enthusiasm surrounding what was going to happen in The Hague.