Celebrating International Day of Action for Rivers and the Release of DRAN’s report “The State of Hydropower Projects Today”

By Aurora Kazi Bassett

March 14th marks a coordinated day of global action for rivers. It is a day to celebrate the successes and mourn the losses of those who work to protect rivers, their ecosystems and the people who rely on them. In 1997 participants of the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams (IMPAD) adopted March 14th as a day to honour the work of water protectors. This year is the 20th anniversary of the first Day of Action comes at a time of a renewed interest in hydro-projects for development and at a time of resurgence of dam construction.

The MIT Displacement Research Action Network (DRAN) is concerned about the impacts of dam construction on the livelihoods, rights, cultural and social assets of historically marginalized communities, particularly indigenous peoples, the rural poor and women. It is estimated that upwards of 20 million people are displaced annually due to development induced displacement, particularly large infrastructures projects like hydroelectric dams.[1]  

What’s more, dispossession is not the only impact these projects bring. For example, hydro-projects often carry significant cost overruns and disruptions to river basin ecosystems.  What do these realities say of the true ‘cost and benefits’ of large hydro projects? What is driving their continued presence in the contemporary context?

As part of its efforts to join other scholars and practitioners in bringing greater attention to the issue, DRAN held a one-day workshop in May 2016 titled “The State of Hydropower Projects Today: Lessons from the Past for the Course Ahead” to look at these and other critical questions.  In the context of this international day of attention for rivers, DRAN is happy to announce the launch of our report of the conference proceedings and notes.

Click here to view the full report.

Originally March 14th was called the International Day of Action Against Dams and For Rivers, Water and Life. This title explicitly centered the resistance to dam building as a key element of protecting rivers and reflected a stance firmly rooted in the reality of the 1990s. That decade saw a pinnacle of large dam (capacity greater than 100MW) construction, particularly across the Global South, and, with it, the growth of grassroots and human rights-based movements to resist the large hydro development paradigm and its impacts. 

The IMPAD met in Brazil in the city which lent its name to “The Curitiba Declaration.” The Declaration demanded, among other things, ‘an immediate moratorium on the building of all large dams until there is a halt to all forms of violence and intimidation against people affected by dams and organizations opposed to dams.’[2]

IMPAD 1997 paved the way for the formation of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in 2000. In its ground-breaking report the WCD outlined new guidelines based on the ‘rights and risks approach’ for the building of dams.[3] DRAN’s founder Balakrishnan Rajagopal contributed to this important work and served as the human rights adviser to WCD. The impact of WCD, spurred by pressure from groups like the IMPAD, was integral to the shifting of safeguard norms at Northern-led international financing institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank.

Unfortunately, most of the demands in “The Curitiba Declaration” such as demands for approval by affected people after an informed and participatory decision making process,[4] reparations for those displaced,[5] and democratic and effective public control[6] have still not been fully realized. In some cases they have even regressed.

Twenty years after the first International Day of Action for Rivers, we find ourselves in the midst of a new resurgence of large dams. Recognition of climate change has spurred a search for ‘renewable’ energy alternatives. Large hydro-projects have, misleadingly, been positioned as such a solution. Persistent evidence shows that when accounting for the impacts and realities lived by communities and using a more comprehensive approach to considerations of environment, large hydro is not sustainable after all.

As of 2014, an estimated 3,700 hydropower dams were either planned or under construction, 847 of which are large dams. The total invested is an unprecedented 2 trillion US$.[7]

However, the successes and failures of these conferences are not the only history we should remember today.

Berta Cáceres Flores, a leader of the Lenca indigenous community of Honduras and co-founder of COPINH was assassinated in March 2016 due to her resistance of dam construction on the Gualcarque River

Berta Cáceres Flores, a leader of the Lenca indigenous community of Honduras and co-founder of COPINH was assassinated in March 2016 due to her resistance of dam construction on the Gualcarque River

In celebrating the 20th anniversary of the International Day for Rivers we must take time to uplift the important work grassroots activists are carrying out in defense of their water and recognize the ongoing attacks, threats and criminalization too many face when speaking out. As we celebrate the 14th of March let us remember the legacy of Berta Cáceres Flores. Berta, a leader of the Lenca indigenous community of Honduras and co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) was tragically assassinated just over one year ago, on March 3rd 2016, because of her resistance to the building of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River.[8]

Such assassinations are not limited to Honduras. There is a global trend of attacks on environmentalists, land defenders, water protectors and human rights activists for their opposition to large scale development projects.[9] We are reminded that the demands for safety made in ‘The Curitiba Declaration’ have still not been met.

The urgency to research and understand the impacts of large scale hydropower projects is as pressing today as it was twenty years ago. There is much we have learned from the WCD process as well as from the work and analysis of grassroots movements such as Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of People Affected by Dams, Brazil).  It is important we examine and draw from these experiences to chart the direction of work ahead.

There remain gaps in our deepening and broadening knowledge about the new resurgence of dam building including the number of people affected by displacement, the myriad impacts faced and the alternatives that are now available.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Action for Rivers, we bring attention back to the impacts of large dams on historically marginalized communities, dams role as a driver of mass displacement and the need for continued work ahead.

Click here to read the full report


[1] See Mr. Cernea’s keynote lecture in DRAN’s report, “The State of Hydropower Today” http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wcd_dams_final_report.pdf

[2] Demand 3a, “Curitiba Declaration”(1997) http://www.rivernet.org/general/movement/curitiba.htm

[3] See the World Commission of Dams Report 2000


[4] Demand 2, “Curitiba Declaration” (1997)

[5] Demand 3b, ibid

[6] Demand 4, ibid

[7] Assuming average construction costs of large dams at 2.8million US$ per MW (Ansar et al. 2014)

[8] See The Guardian’s obituary, March 4th, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/03/honduras-berta-caceres-murder-enivronment-activist-human-rights

[9] The joint publication of Yale University and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale Environment 360 has an ongoing series: “Environmentalists at Risk” which profiles the stories of environmentalist human rights activists who have been killed for opposing development projects: http://e360.yale.edu/features/honduras-berta-caceres-murder-activists-environmentalists-at-risk#series-nav