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Watered Down? A review of social and environmental safeguards for large dam projects

Hydropower is back in the spotlight. Many large dams are now being built after a lull at the end of the last century. And some are being built in the name of climate change mitigation and adaptation. New sources of finance – from China and private banks internationally – and new financing tools including carbon trading are also playing their part. Large dams have large and specific social and environmental impacts that require well targeted responses. Population displacement, alteration of downstream flows, and creation of barriers to the movement of aquatic life, all pose unique challenges that are often not provided for in national environmental or water legislation.

However, a proliferation of standards and guidelines around dams is causing its own problems. Which safeguards are required and for whom? This report assesses the compulsory, donor-driven and voluntary frameworks that seek to ensure sustainable outcomes from large hydropower dams. The application of these frameworks is considered in light of particular dam projects, and recommendations are made to ensure that human welfare and sustainability are at the heart of decision-making about large dams.

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