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‘Dammed’ communities?

Today marks the celebration of the International World Water Day held annually on the 22nd of March. Each year World Water Day highlights a specific aspect of freshwater, advocating for a sustainable management of its resources. This year’s focus will be on the understanding of the linkages between water and food security.

And this year, it seems there is a good reason to celebrate! The UN have announced at the beginning of March that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on safe drinking water have met its target. The Guardian reported that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef joint monitoring programme for water supply and sanitation (JMP) found that between 1990 and 2010 over 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water.

With water management solutions re-surfacing on the development agenda, there was also a lot of discussion centred around the controversial issue of mega-dams construction in the last couple of weeks.

Large dams are being built to meet the energy and water needs and to promote food security against the backdrop of the climate change. While the process of dam construction is still very much top-down, there is a promising global trend towards approaches that are more inclusive of local communities, highlighted in a series of recent events and reports:

  • A new study presented last week at the World Water Forum in Marseille, France argued that if dams are to offer development opportunities for all, emphasis needs to be on benefit sharing, especially with local communities.
  • The ‘Sharing the water, sharing the benefits’ report published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Institute of Energy and Development (IIED) with support of Global Water Initiative (GWI) discussed the impact of dams on local communities in West Africa and provided a set of policy-friendly recommendations that would ensure higher participation of local population in dam construction. “Involving and engaging local people and giving them a stake in a dam is clearly something that is desirable and which can benefit all parties involved” – said the report.
  • The Guardian also published a story analysing energy companies’ pledge to measure social and environmental impact of large dam projects through an introduction of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP).

Bringing the voices of those affected the most by the construction of dams is at the heart of Relay’s most recent project in Northeast India, which aimed to strengthen media capacity to report research on this critical development issue.

Through a fellowship programme for local journalists, Relay sought to engage different stakeholders in a constructive debate concerning dams and development, highlighting underreported perspectives for audiences in the Northeast region of India.

More than 300 dams are scheduled to be built in Northeast India in upcoming years, but these large infrastructure projects may pose a threat to local inhabitants’ livelihoods, environment and culture.

“There needs to be a recognition that hydropower can supply much needed energy, but also a recognition that the size and scope of the dam projects are a cause for concern because of their impact on residents and environment” – said Arup Jyoti Das, Panos South Asia’s Relay Programme Manager.

Tribal villagers in the Narmada valley. These people and thousands of others will have to leave their homes when the massive Narmada dam project floods the valley. - Karen Robinson / Panos Pictures

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