Statement on human rights: affected by dams and infrastructure

By United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner

Water is crucial to life. Rivers serve as the Earth’s arteries, conveying water, nutrients and sediments from the sources of rivers to oceans. The grave unsustainability of freshwater ecosystems not only degrades biodiversity, but also severely affects the lives and human rights of the most impoverished. Large dams break the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems and the sources of food and basic resources of riparian communities, forcing massive displacement.

In November 2000, the World Commission on Dams presented the findings of its landmark report stating that dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, but in too many cases an unacceptable price has been paid, especially in social and environmental impacts, mainly by riparian communities.

According to that report, between 40 and 80 million people, whose homes were flooded, were forcibly displaced, and more than 470 million had their livelihoods severely affected downstream.

Ever since, resettlement for the displaced and the consequences on downstream livelihoods have led to the impoverishment of millions…; and continues today.

Indigenous peoples disproportionately suffered from these impacts in addition to the loss of their territories and cultural integrity. The greatest difficulties in accessing safe water often end up being borne disproportionately by women and girls, who are often the ones who take on the work of supplying families and communities with water on a daily basis.

The World Commission on Dams proposed a new framework for decision-making on dams in order to ensure:

  • demonstrable acceptance of affected people and the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples;
  • comprehensive and participatory assessment of water, food and energy needs;
  • that affected people are beneficiaries, fairly compensated, including retroactively, and effectively restore damaged ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the Commission was unable to ensure effective mechanisms to guarantee the adoption of its recommendations. The human rights of those affected have continued to be transgressed: forced displacement that violates several human rights, such as rights to housing, food, water and sanitation, education; the rights of affected Indigenous peoples over their territories and their rights to free, prior and informed consent; violations of the rights to life and freedom of expression through the criminalization of protests, threats, attacks and even murders of individuals opposing dams.

Today many rivers and riverside communities continue to be threatened mainly by hydroelectric projects. Under the argument of promoting energy transition in the face of climate change, the hydropower industry, with the support of the new and increasingly South-oriented International Financial Institutions (IFIs), is promoting new wave of large hydropower dams. The emerging green financing mechanisms, such as green and climate bonds, extends new financial forms in the absence of human rights standards and safeguards, despite the existence of less impactful renewable energy options. Such mechanisms also ignore the issues of concerns and recommendations raised by the UN System, including the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights and the environment, on the right to adequate housing, on human rights to drinking water and sanitation and on human rights defenders. Those mechanisms also disregard instruments such as the United Nations ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’.


  • call on Governments to ensure independent reviews of dams to ensure fair compensation to affected people and guarantee human rights to drinking water, sanitation and sanitation, housing, food, health and education.
  • call on Governments to effectively implement and enforce international human rights obligations and related standards and guidelines,
  • call on governments, the power generation industry and financial institutions to halt planned new large hydropower dams and prioritise the optimisation of existing dams and the development of other renewable energies with lower social and environmental impacts

A longer version of the statement is also available for download.

* The statement is issued by:

Pedro Arrojo Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation,

David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment

Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food

Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons

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