World Commission on Dams reports on its work with wetlands


[Reprinted from Dams: Official Newsletter of the World Commission on Dams, No. 7, August 2000, pp. 5-6.]

Wetlands, Dams and International Policy

When the World Commission on Dams looked at the positive and negative environmental impacts of dams, one pivotal issue was how and where dams affect freshwater riparian wetlands.

So WCD began asking the experts: What is the nature of dam impacts on wetlands? Where are they most acutely felt? Can dams create new habitat? How can dam operations change the sustainability of wetlands? Do dam reservoirs mitigate the loss of natural wetlands they deprive downstream or inundate upstream?

And, what are global organisations doing about the cumulative international impacts of dams on wetlands?

As it turned out, very little.

To its own surprise, the WCD found that, due to time constraints or inattention or scarce research dollars, few international wetlands experts and organisations had closely examined the direct relationship between large dams and wetlands. Of all the many and diverse aspects of development seen by environmental scientists as posing serious threats to wetlands, the construction of 800,000 dams did not make the top ten.

Over the course of WCD's study, presentations and research, that blur gradually grew focused. In the process of answering WCD's questions, wetlands experts began to ask a few of their own. Organisations began to recognise threats and impacts -- both positive and negative -- that they had previously overlooked.

"Dams positively and negatively affect 98 of the 1,005 designated Ramsar wetlands," observed Commissioner Deborah Moore in presentations and essays. "On one hand, a dam created Greece's Lake Kerkini, a shallow reservoir that is now a Ramsar wetland and important habitat for waterfowl. On the other hand, Tunisia's Lake Ichkeul is a Ramsar wetland that is becoming salinized due to the restriction of freshwater inflows by dams upstream."

All this culminated at the 7th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting parties to the Ramsar Wetlands Convention in San Jose, Costa Rica, 10-18 May 1999, and again in Tokyo in February 2000.

A formal decision of the parties directed its review panels "to follow and participate actively in the programme of the World Commission on Dams, providing input on themes of relevance to Contracting Parties, and to report back to Ramsar COP 8 concerning the findings of the WCD and their implications for the future."

In layman terms, this meant wetlands officials recognised that dam impacts on wetlands are significant, that they need to be closely monitored and addressed, and that the emerging evidence and ultimate findings of the WCD offer an opportunity that should, where appropriate, be internalised within Ramsar's own work programme.

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