Debating dams: the World Commission on Dams 20 years on

Christopher Schulz*, William M. Adams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was a global environmental governance forum that worked between 1998 and 2000 to try to resolve long-standing controversies between supporters and opponents of large dams. Its objectives were to assess the development effectiveness of large dams and to develop best practice guidelines for large dam construction and management, based on an extensive review of scientific evidence and wide-ranging stakeholder consultation. This paper reviews literature discussing the WCD, to understand its influence on the debate on large dams and beyond. We find that its influence is debated within four main contexts: (i) interpretations of stakeholder responses to the WCD report and recommendations; (ii) the persistence of the kinds of impacts of large dams that gave rise to the Commission’s work; (iii) the different visions for appropriate follow-up strategies; (iv) insights from the WCD experience in the context of global environmental governance. Within these four contexts, we identify diverse opinions and directions of post-WCD development and sources of disagreement on its merits and legacy, ranging from calls for its full implementation to dismissal and opposition. Commentators also differ in their assessment of whether the WCD sparked truly novel insights and propositions for dam decision-making or whether it simply represented one among many other elements in the broader debate on dams. Most commonly, the WCD’s work is cited in the context of persistent negative social and environmental impacts of dams: neither the impacts nor the controversy over large dams have ended.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1396
Number of pages19
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number5
Early online date24 Aug 2019
Publication statusPrint publication - 21 Sept 2019
Externally publishedYes


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