World Declaration on Dam Safety

Throughout history, the construction, operation and maintenance of dams and their storage reservoirs have provided significant benefits to humankind. Storage of water behind dams regulates natural streamflow, allowing for benefits resulting from increased water availability, renewable energy production and reduction of adverse impacts caused by natural extremes of flooding and drought.

In our brittle world, growing population is causing a steady increase in demand for water, food and energy to meet basic needs as well as higher standards of living.  At the same time, however, dams may create new hazards with risks to downstream life and property in the event of dam failure resulting from an uncontrolled or catastrophic release of stored water.

The Dams Engineering profession has a profound duty and moral responsibility: namely, building urgently needed dams, reservoirs and levees in the most effective and sustainable way, while also ensuring that they are safe during their whole lifespan.

ICOLD and Dam Safety

For almost a century, the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) has been committed to promote attention to dam safety. As an important part of societal concerns, this has always been among the highest organizational commitment as stated in the ICOLD Mission Statement:

ICOLD leads the profession in setting standards and establishing guidelines to ensure that dams are built and operated safely, efficiently, economically, and are environmentally sustainable and socially equitable.”

Before the creation of ICOLD in 1928, knowledge on dam safety was disparate and not well disseminated, while the need for building water storage infrastructures was very high and growing. It was therefore urgent to organize the knowledge transfer as well as the design and operation experience sharing within the dam engineering community through ICOLD.

ICOLD has played a key role in this highly significant improvement of dam safety, through its work in collecting and analyzing information on the lessons learned from past failures and major incidents. Since its inception, ICOLD and its thousands of professionals within the member countries have continuously contributed to the improvement of dam safety through publication of technical papers and exchange of experience during Annual meetings and Congresses. Also playing a key role has been the work of its Technical Committees, with the publication of technical Bulletins and other technical works summarizing the recommended state-of-the art best practices.

Since the creation of ICOLD, the number of failures compared to the total number of dams in operation have been reduced about tenfold, a dramatic achievement reflecting the worldwide influence of ICOLD.  Nonetheless, constant vigilance and commitment to dam safety is still required in order to continue this successful record.

Any dam incident is a matter of the gravest concern to dam professionals and a reflection on all ICOLD members: Unintentional dam breaching can have catastrophic consequences, resulting in loss of life and injuries, as well as widespread damage to property, infrastructure and the environment.

Changing Conditions of Dam Safety

Due to the vital need for water, food and energy, the total number of dams worldwide is continuing to grow. Maintaining the present trend of a decreasing failure rate is a never-ending challenge for the profession.  ICOLD’s role in knowledge transfer and dissemination of the required best practices is still urgently needed, since the understanding of the factors affecting dam safety is also in constant evolution.  The changing conditions of dam safety include the following factors:

  • The ageing of existing infrastructure is creating new concerns related to the ageing of construction material and equipment.
  • More and more emerging and developing countries are now building dams, but they may lack experience in dam safety management.
  • The increasing participation of the private sector in the dam business creates new governance conditions for dam safety.
  • Climate change creates new opportunities and needs for dams but also new natural hazards, which must be assessed and managed.
  • Because the sites most suitable for dams have already been largely utilised, new dams must be built in more and more challenging sites, especially regarding geological conditions.

As a recognized international organization of experts in dam engineering, ICOLD calls upon governmental authorities and financing institutions to promote a particular awareness of the subject of dam safety. The goal of this World Declaration on Dam Safety is to restate the fundamentals of dam safety that have been learned by generations of engineers over time. Furthermore, all involved institutions should be reminded to ensure, through the fulfillment of their responsibilities, that those principles be respected in order to minimize risks to humankind associated with dams and reservoirs.

Pillars of Dam Safety

The platform of Dam Safety is supported by important pillars – each critically important to a proper dam safety program.  With more than 90 years of commitment to dam safety, ICOLD recognizes several overarching pillars of Dam Safety:

  1. Structural Safety.  Structural safety of dams during the occurrence of hazardous events such as extreme floods and earthquakes is the paramount keystone: the best required state-of-the art has been largely documented by the ICOLD bulletins in order to create the sound basis that existing and future dams should be designed, built and operated under safe conditions.
  2. Vigilance in Surveillance and Maintenance.  Understanding the performance of an existing dam is of highest importance to minimize risk and ensure dam safety in the long term. Periodic dam safety review, by qualified engineers highly experienced in dam safety assessment, is mandatory for all dams.
  3. Emergency Planning and Training. Knowing what to do in case of an emergency at a dam is of utmost importance, with the objective of avoiding loss of life and reducing damage to properties, infrastructures and environment resulting from dam failure. The first filling of the reservoir being a critical period, the emergency plan must be implemented in a timely manner.  Periodic review and practice of the emergency plan is mandatory.
  4. Adequate Training of Operators. Those placed in charge of dams carry an important responsibility to maintain their training and understanding of their dam.  Misoperation of dam, especially spillway gates can lead to downstream flooding or potential overtopping of the dam.
  5. Sharing Lessons Learned.  The experience of ICOLD has shown that sharing lessons from dam incidents and failureis crucial to improve best practices. For all involved entities, it is thus imperative to make any documentation on dam incidents freely accessible to the international dam community, including independent expert reports on the root causes of such incidents.
  6. A Comprehensive Dam Safety Approach. This will allow risk minimization through mutual efforts by national organizations to support dam safety; structural measures for strengthening the structure’s integrity and stability; measures to minimize the consequences of failures as well as education and public awareness about dams.
  7. Owner Responsibility.  ICOLD recognizes that the safety of all dams is the primary responsibility and liability of the Owners and Operators.  Regulatory authorities should take responsibility for regulating the safety of the dams by ensuring best practice design standards, quality construction, emergency preparedness and operational compliance within accepted industry guidelines and standards. 
  8. An International Perspective.  International organizations such as ICOLD, which provide guidelines based on worldwide experience, can provide important guidance to both Owners and Government Regulators for better understanding of the current state of best practices for design and safety of dams.

Summary Declaration

With the high goal of working towards continuous reduction of dam failure incidents, ICOLD, as the leading international organization committed to Dam Safety, calls upon all involved professionals and industries to make a firm commitment to dam safety. 

Furthermore, governments and financial institutions are called upon to make a similar policy commitment so that the all-important Safety Recommendations for Dams will be disseminated responsibly to the relevant authorities and organizations.

This common effort will contribute immeasurably to the overarching ICOLD vision:

“Better Dams for a better World.”

11 July 2019 V1 World Declaration on Dam Safety