For much of the 20th century, most nations were as busy as beavers building large dams - more than 45,000 at a total cost of $2 trillion - for electricity and irrigation.
Even beavers weren't able to stand in the way of this rush in the name of technological progress: Quebec paid $800 apiece to remove beavers by helicopter from rising dam reservoirs.
But with dams already built on nearly half the world's rivers, enough protests have been heard about the negative impact on the poor and the environment that the world is ready for a new approach.
A two-year study by the World Commission on Dams has come up with sensible recommendations that will improve the process of making decisions on building dams.
The 12-member commission doesn't recommend that no more big dams be built. Rather, it lays out strict guidelines that would broaden the range of people who must be consulted and the assessment of risk to society and ecosystems. Future dam projects, it argues, must be governed by principles of equity, efficiency, participatory decisionmaking, sustainability, and accountability.
If these principles had been used up to now, the world might not have seen the displacement of 40 million to 80 million people and an irreversible loss of many species from dams.
To be sure, dams require trade-offs, but public debate must be improved to accept those tradeoffs. For many nations, that's a difficult path. Dams account for 19 percent of electricity generated worldwide; 24 countries receive more than 90 percent of their power from dams. Dams are a defense against floods, and about half of all big dams were built for irrigation - accounting for one-seventh of all food production.
But too many dams were built out of national pride, bureaucratic arrogance, and greed for kickbacks. The World Bank, which backed this study and has funded many dams, has taken a new, cautious approach. But the main target are the export-import credit banks of many rich nations that compete to bankroll dams.
As the pace of dam-building slows and real damages are taken into account, any new dams will be put on a more sure footing, with more clarity on their role in human development.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society