Large Dams

In 2013, Foundation Earth wrote the following letter to the World Bank addressing the environmental and social damage resulting from large damming projects and urged them to cease funding them.


The Honorable Jim Yong Kim
President, the World Bank
1818 H Street NW
Washington, DC 20433

May 24, 2013

Re: World Bank Policy & Large Dams

Dear Dr. Kim:

The undersigned individuals are knowledgeable people who have dealt with water and development issues.  We are deeply disturbed by the World Bank’s new plan to return to the failed dam building strategy of past decades.  The announcement is especially troubling because this action is being done in part with the rationale of reducing climate-altering gases, reducing financial poverty, and promoting long-term ecological sustainability.

As you know large dams are not the only way to better the plight of financially poor people. Some thoughtful analysts and the Bank’s own researchers have found that big dams increase poverty. There are better ways to stimulate economic activity to alleviate poverty problems, while helping resolve other problems. If you are seriously concerned with poverty reduction, massive job creation, and averting the food crisis, then modernizing irrigation offers far better returns than big hydro for mining conglomerates, as in the Grande Inga that you prioritize.  Hydro has many far better alternatives; there are few alternatives to irrigation, source of c.45% of the world’s food.

Our serious concerns about your proposed big hydro emphasis fall into the following nine categories. Should this go forward, we pledge to re-launch an offense against Congressional replenishments, bad World Bank policies, and backsliding on the current safeguards:

I.  Past Isn’t Future: As climate destabilization intensifies, hydrological cycles of the past are disrupted with increasing flood/drought episodes.  Relying on large dams whose purposes and justifications depend on flow records of the past is economic folly.  It is far preferable to go to energy sources not dependent on water, such as solar and wind power.

II. Destabilization: Rather than promoting stability and reduction of tensions, large dams often displace tens of thousands of people.  Some like Gibe III in Ethiopia would impact hundreds of thousands who live downstream and depend on the annual flood cycle.  Refugees from dam building, combined with the spreading ecological damage from the project, can be a source of conflict.

III. Fishery Disruption: Large dams can destroy both freshwater and oceanic fisheries.  For example, mainstem dams on the Mekong River could ruin the world’s largest inland fishery, a fishery with over 200 migratory species that is relied on by an estimated 60 million people for their livelihoods.

IV. Ecological Disruption: Dams on rivers block the downstream flow of nutrients and alter the natural flooding cycles depended upon by fish.   By trapping vital sediment, big dams can seriously harm ocean fisheries and contribute to the problem of dead zones.

V.   Centralized Energy is Old Paradigm: Large, centralized dam projects cannot provide the transmission lines to dispersed rural populations.  In contrast, decentralized renewable energy projects have the flexibility to deliver energy without expensive transmission lines.  In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 585 million people lack access to electricity.  The International Energy Agency reports that 70% of the world’s un-electrified rural areas are best served by mini-grids or off-grid solutions.   This point is illustrated by dams in the DRC where 85% of the power from the Inga I and II hydrodams goes to a small percentage of high-voltage users while less than 10% of the population has access to electricity.

The World Bank needs to change its strategy. It is folly to expect that enough transmission lines would be built from central power stations to reach anything but a pittance of those who need energy in rural areas.  In order to have a better chance of reaching its poverty reduction goal, the Bank should proceed with wind and solar options.

VI. Big Dams Emit Dangerous GHGs: The World Bank seems to be unaware that many dams themselves are a major source of greenhouse gases. According to peer-reviewed research, big dams are
responsible for 1/4 of “human-caused” methane releases. Methane, as you know, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  Furthermore, the drawdown zone (mudflats) created by fluctuating reservoirs also emits methane.  Scientists are unsure of how large this newly identified problem is; however, climate destabilization will increase the frequency and extent of reservoir drawdowns.

VII. Big Dams Increase Poverty: We fully support your emphasis on financial poverty reduction. However, the World Bank’s own studies and others prove that big dams increase poverty, as mentioned above.  People displaced by dams number in the hundreds of thousands.  Practically all become poorer as a result of displacement.  Big electricity consumers and some people in distant cities receive electricity, but little—if any—of such benefits trickle down to the rural poor and the displaced. It is the wrong technology for reasons listed above.

VIII. Lacking a Holistic Approach: Solving climate destabilization via a return to funding and technical advice for new big hydroelectricity generation is not a holistic or sensible package. For example, you have not coupled this push with lifestyle shifts including massive energy waste reduction in recipient or over-developed nations. Nor have you packaged it with multiple-year funding and technical assistance for women’s empowerment to help alleviate patriarchal dominance and over-population.

IX. History matters. Perhaps advisors to you such as Rachel Kyte may have forgotten the Bank’s experience with the World Commission on Dams as she joined the WBG only in 2000, when this Commission was winding down. As you are now the “Knowledge Bank”, the Commission provides a major lesson.

In the mid-1990s the Bank President James Wolfensohn was faced with conflicting advice on large dams, very similar to what you are hearing nowadays.  Because the conflicting advice seemed to JDW so balanced between “full steam ahead with big hydro” vs. “finance only the low impact dams” that he convened the independent, participatory and transparent World Commission on Dams that began in 1997 and issued its final report in 2000.  The World Commission on Dams was very clear:  finance only the lowest impact dams and then with many safeguards. This has become the industry standard.

Since the late 1990s the case against large dams has strengthened as world population has burgeoned, few sites are empty of people, climate change risks have soared on the international agenda, forest has become more important for GHG sequestration, and there is less of an international appetite for using force to involuntarily resettle humans away from their ancestral homelands.  As noted above, the displaced almost always become worse off after their move according to Bank findings and that is one reason big hydro increases poverty. IBRD needs to support the UN’s mandate for Free Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous Peoples, as the IFC already does.

The World Bank seems to be replicating the dam building approach to rivers that the United States pursued from the 1930s to 1970.  Since then, the United States has removed over 1,200 dams to restore fisheries and improve water quality; placed over 200 rivers into the “Wild and Scenic” river system, where rivers are off limits to river engineering; and eliminated over 200 dam and river diversion projects.  Copying what the U.S. used to do makes no more economic sense than trying in the modern computer age to pretend we don’t have PCs (Personal Computers) and then going back and replicating the giant main frame computers. It makes no more sense than promoting landline systems in poor countries when we now have cell phones.

This proposed policy shift is an unacceptable reduction in the World Bank Safeguards that will cause extensive ecological damage, social strife, and allow a few to profit. It is as bad as commodifying nature market mechanisms such as payments for ecosystem services. Offsets reduce pressure on polluters, while letting them continue to make a profit, undercutting the very life-support systems of the planet.

The World Bank should have a “first do no harm” approach.

Principled leadership is needed. As the new Bank President, you have an opportunity to get out of funding nature-destroying, centralized, bad electricity generation funding. We will be back in touch with more suggestions on providing such leadership, but for now, stop the path of being one of the world’s largest funders of dirty fossil fuel extraction and river-destroying, people-impoverishing big hydro projects. You cannot claim legitimate concern for climate disruption via such a path.

Stop this madness or we see a fast-emerging fight on Congressional replenishments along with the re-activation of intense citizens’ pressure against tragically wrong-headed World Bank funding proposals.


Brent Blackwelder                                  Vice-Chair, Foundation Earth*
Randy Hayes                                          Executive Director, Foundation Earth
Robert Goodland                                    Author of most of the World Bank’s Safeguard Policies
Herman Daly                                          Economist, Author, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland
Professor Oliver Houck                          Tulane Law School
Joji Carino                                               Former Commissioner, World Commission on Dams;
Director, Forest Peoples Programme
Professor Zygmunt Plater                      Boston College Law School
Mr. S. M. Mohamed Idris                      President of the Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Bill McKibben                                         Author
Paul Hawken                                          Author
John Seed                                                Founder, Rainforest Information Centre
Barbara Unmüssig                                  President, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany
Cormac Cullinan                                      Executive member, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature
Chee Yoke Ling                                       Director of Programmes, Third World Network 
Marcus Colchester                                  Senior Advisor, Forest Peoples Programme
Rex Weyler                                             Author, Co-founder Greenpeace International
Michael Brune                                        Executive Director, Sierra Club
Rev. Billy Talen                                      The Church of Stop Shopping
Rev. Séamus P. Finn OMI                      Director, JPIC Ministry Missionary Oblates
Rabbi Michael Lerner                             Editor Tikkun & Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives
Van Jones                                                President & Co-Founder, Rebuild the Dream
Mike Roselle                                          Founder, Climate Ground Zero
Daryl Hannah                                         Actress/Activist
John Densmore                                       Doors Drummer
Jishi Peter Coyote                                   Zen Buddhist priest, actor-writer
Bonnie Raitt                                            Musician/Activist
Summer Rayne Oakes                           Model-Activist, Co-founder of Source4Style
Tom Hayden                                           California State Senator [retired]
Dave Foreman                                        Executive Director, The Rewilding Institute
Carleen Pickard                                       Global Exchange 
Medea Benjamin                                    CoDirector, CODEPINK & Cofounder, Global Exchange
Jakob von Uexkull                                  Founder, Right Livelihood Awards & World Future Council
Bill Twist                                                 President, The Pachamama Alliance
Erich Pica                                                President, Friends of the Earth U.S.
David Suzuki,                                          Emeritus Professor of Zoology, University of British Columbia
Wade Davis                                            Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society
Dal LaMagna                                          President and CEO of IceStone USA
Kenneth A. Cook                                     President, Environmental Working Group
Jack Santa Barbara, PhD                        The Sustainable Scale Project
Charlotte Levinson                                  President Max & Anna Levinson Foundation
Ralph Metzner, PhD                               President, Green Earth Foundation
Vinit Allen                                               Executive Director, Sustainable World Coalition
Henry Lee Morgenstern                         Wildlife Attorney
Zoe Helene                                             Artist/Activist Founder, Cosmic Sister
Todd Steiner                                           Executive Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network
Dr. Vandana Shiva                                  Navdanya/Research Foundation for Science Technology & Ecology
Jodie Evans                                             Co-founder CODEPINK; President of Threshold Foundation
Tim Lang PhD                                         Professor of Food Policy, City University. England
Tom Weis                                               President, Climate Crisis Solutions
John Talberth                                          President, Center for Sustainable Economy
Lauren T. Klein                                        Marin Community Gardens Network
Kathleen Gildred                                    Executive Dir., Southern California Council on Environment & Development
Jigar Shah                                               Founder of SunEdison
Tracy Worcester                                     Co-director, Farms Not Factories
Philip Fearnside                                      Professor, National Institute for Research in Amazonia, Manaus
Charles A. Munn, III, PhD                       CEO SouthWild (“Jaguars guaranteed”)
Tom Athanasiou                                     Author, Director of EcoEquity
Pratt Remmel, Jr                                    Arkansas Environmentalist
Derrick Jensen                                        Author, Endgame
Thomas Cavanagh                                  Executive Director of Bandaloop
Tom Butler                                              Foundation for Deep Ecology
Chris Kilham                                           Founder, Medicine Hunter, Inc.
Adrian Forsyth                                        Author
Lori Udall                                                                President, Montpelier Consulting
Charles Secrett                                       National Coordinator, The ACT! Alliance
Saskia Ozinga                                         Coordinator FERN
Harvey Wasserman                               CEO,
Barbara Pyle                                          Filmmaker
William Rees, PhD, FRSC                       Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia
Renée G. Soule                                       Eco-psychologist, Sustainable World Coalition
Brian Staszenski                                     Director, Global Resource Efficiency Services
Eric Utne                                                 Founder, Utne Reader
Lavinia Currier                                        Sacharuna Foundation
Madeleine Dunphy                                 Publisher, Web of Life Children’s Books
Miguel Reynal                                        President of Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina
Catherine Caufield                                  Author
Lindsey Allen                                          Executive Director, Rainforest Action Network
Leslie Leslie                                            International Rivers board member
Marion M. Hunt                                     Trustee and Program Officer, Environment RA Hunt Foundation
Kay Treakle                                            Former Executive Director of the Bank Information Center
Jello Biafra                                              Musician
Bill Shireman                                          President, Global Futures Foundation
Wes `Scoop’ Nisker                                                Author, Performer, Buddhist Meditation Teacher
Harriet Crosby                                        Board Member, Friends of the Earth  U.S.
Atossa Soltani                                         Executive Director, Amazon Watch
Kelly Quirke                                            Former Executive Director, Rainforest Action Network
Colin Hines                                              Convenor UK Green New Deal group
Tricia Schimpp, AICP                               Urban and Environmental Planning Consultant
Tom Weis                                               President, Climate Crisis Solutions
John Sellers                                             Founder, The Other 98%
John W. Passacantando                          President, Our Next Economy, LLC
Norton Smith                                          Whole Systems Foundation
John Davis                                              Rewilding Institute Board Member
Osprey Orielle Lake                                Founder/President Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus
Kimberly Carter Gamble                        CEO Clear Compass Media
Vivienne Verdon-Roe, Ph. D                   Filmmaker
Winona LaDuke                                      Honor the Earth
Tzeporah Berman, BA, MES, LLD           Author (honoris causia)
Tom Athanasiou                                     Executive Director, EcoEquity
Vinit Allen                                               Executive Director, Sustainable World Coalition



CC: Jin-Yong Cai                    IFC Executive Vice President and CEO
Jacob Lew                               Secretary of the Treasury of the United States
Rachel Kyte                            Vice President, Sustainable Development, The World Bank
Nancy Pelosi                          Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives
Ian Solomon                           U.S. Executive Director of the World Bank
Achim Steiner                         Executive Director, UNEP
Members of U.S. House and Senate Authorization & Appropriations Committees for World Bank


What makes large-scale hydropower so troublesome is that it does not allow for easy revision.

What if the designers and engineers are wrong? How can the structure adapt? If you’ve flooded square miles of wilderness and built a dam 63 stories tall, it’s hard to revise, to amend the system. It is not much different than strip mining or generating nuclear waste in that one has no opportunity to revise.

William McDonough, The Upcycle & Cradle to Cradle


*Note: Signature list was updated with signers that came in after the delivery of the letter to the World Bank