It really gives me great pleasure to be present at and participate in this occasion of the launch of the report of the World Commission on Dams.
This is not least so because of the strange phenomenon of the Minister of Education from a certain country far down south on the African continent chairing this World Commission on Dams.
That might surprise some, but those who know the man - as I am sure the members of the Commission have come to do - will testify that his energy, drive and abundant natural intelligence equip him excellently to give leadership in such a project.
And after all, I may add, Kader Asmal was Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in the South African Cabinet - a position and portfolio in which he excelled. Not only did he bring much needed services such as clean running water to millions of people previously deprived of such basics;he succeeded in planting in the national consciousness an unprecedented awareness of the vital importance of water as scarce and depletable resource.
He has in the meantime, now that I have become an unemployed pensioner and he a Minister of Education, deserted me. It is therefore good to be able to catch up with him again here in London!
I am aware that the issue of dams and their benefits and impacts has become one of the battlegrounds in the sustainable development arena. The establishment of the Commission was well timed and its report will certainly be an important contribution to those debates and our understanding of them.
We are here today, in large part, to answer the questions: Who really needs the work of the World Commission on Dams? Who is their Report written for? There are some who may say it can only target a very narrow readership;a few thousand specialists in the ir field, at most. Yet from my brief introduction to the Report it has become clear what is at stake and how it can help all of us resolve potentially explosive tensions together. For it involves the careful use of our collective life support systems, the rivers entrusted to us as stewards of nature.
We in South Africa have ourselves faced hard questions and had to make hard choices in this regard. We knew that political freedom alone is still not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough without light to read at night, without time o r access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family.
For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom. They can grow together or they can unravel each other. Threats to our governments in the century ahead will come from poverty, if anything.
Our largest city, Johannesburg, was not founded on the banks of a flowing river. It is nowhere near a large river. Which meant that we had to bring water to the people from the closest viable source in order to address one of the key needs in poverty allev iation and the creation of decent living conditions.
That source sprang from the highlands of neighbouring Lesotho. We needed more water for Johannesburg;Lesotho needed electricity for its rural peoples. To do so, one answer was one of the most significant water development projects in the Southern Hemisphe re. It meant authorisation of another large dam!
We knew the controversy and complexities of such an undertaking and had to carefully negotiate the political minefields and legal challenges, taking into consideration environmental, financial, social and economic impacts. A dam - a means to an end - which was one option among others, emerged as our best option under the circumstances.
Was it our best tool? Were other options overlooked? Perhaps. I believe ours was the right choice at the time. But no one knew for sure. There is a part of me, and I believe of my then Minister of Water Affairs, that resented having to choose the lesser of two evils: relocate some so that all may have water, or forgo a dam, thus slowing human development and increasing urban stress.
It is not easy to be inside of the process, making decisions that would affect the lives of millions and for decades to come. The guidance that one could henceforth seek from the Report of a World Commission would be invaluable.
For the question remains: how do we eradicate poverty with attention to this crucial life supporting system? Some say large dams offer solutions;others say large dams create problems. The Commission, as I understand from its Report, to its credit says nei ther.
It simply distils the evidence of the performance of dams in the past, in which dams, on balance, have delivered significant benefits for the many. But the overall performance and impacts of dams present us with a more complex and often bleak picture, espe cially for the unspoken minority, and for nature.
But unlike many critics of dams, the Commission is not quick to point fingers. For it recognises that while there must be greater accountability, it is too easy and not too productive to simply blame the industries that build, the governments that authoris e, the agencies that fund, the engineers who design the large dam.
The problem, though, is not the dams. It is the hunger. It is the thirst. It is the darkness of a township. It is townships and rural huts without running water, lights or sanitation. It is the time wasted gathering water by hand. There is a real pressing need for power in every sense of the word. Rather than single out dams for excessive blame, or credit, we must learn to answer: "It is all of us!"All of us must wrestle with the difficult questions we face.
And this Report provides answers and assistance for it was written by those who wrestled together for more than two years. The time and energy they spent wrestling with these questions save time, energy, sweat and money for the rest of us.
We thank you for your hard work. We congratulate you on the quality of your Report. We commend you for the way you created space for dialogue, mutual understanding and ultimately mutual respect and understanding amongst the parties to the dams debate and c onflicts. You have shown us the way forward for dealing with such complex issues.
I thank you.