The social and environmental impacts of dams and other large scale water infrastructure have led public agencies to implement so-called “safeguard” policies. These policies are intended to provide basic guarantees against unjust and unsustainable impacts being borne by those who benefit least and suffer most from the projects in question. Safeguards also provide a checklist against which those questioning a project may call the funder or project implementer to task. They also relate to processes of consultation and involvement in decision making. However, the experience with safeguard policies has been mixed. Furthermore, the declining role of public agencies such as the international development banks in financing projects means that safeguards may have less relevance compared with the regulatory role of state agencies in the country where the project is implemented.

Key governance issues:

  • Ensuring that safeguards are comprehensive and that they cover both social and environmental issues
  • Providing state agencies with the means to implement safeguards through regulation of private infrastructure projects
  • Moving beyond a “checklist” approach to safeguards
  • Adequate monitoring of project performance throughout the project cycle with regard to safeguard provisions and compliance

Current critique and debate:

Even where projects have been subject to extensive evaluation and safeguard provisions, critics have found that the promises of benefits and the mitigation of impacts have fallen far short of promises made and safeguards imposed. Nam Theun 2 is a high-profile example of how such debate plays out in the Mekong Region. The international development banks have implemented measures that simplify some of the more elaborate safeguard policies, and these moves have been criticised by civil society actors. On the other hand, others have argued that over-elaboration of standards will result in governments handing over projects to those with the financial means to circumvent safeguards altogether. China’s role in hydropower development in the Mekong Region and its own sets of rules, practices and safeguards are another important area of discussion, critique and debate.

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