By Graham Watkins
The “Paris Climate Agreement” was finalized in December 2015. The agreement supports national drives toward reducing global emissions and improving planning and institutional capacities for adaptation and climate resilience. The agreement potentially opens opportunities for additional concessional financing, particularly financing to support the seventh Sustainable Development Goal to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” including an increasing share of renewable energy while expanding infrastructure to supply energy. Since 75% of renewable energy is presently supplied by hydropower, the “Paris Climate Agreement,” de facto, includes a drive toward more hydropower. This move toward more hydropower has been questioned from indigenous rights and social perspectives as well as from environmental and biodiversity perspectives.
For example, a recent paper in Science led by Kirk Winemiller describes the multitude of effects of hydropower on aquatic habitats. These range from the loss of endemic fish species and blocking critical fish migrations to modifying downstream flood pulse dynamics and sedimentation patterns. These environmental changes can in turn affect the livelihoods of vulnerable people as key food-fish populations are affected. The authors go further to point out that given the present plans for hydropower development, these impacts will be substantial and affect three critical basins replete with endemic species – the Amazon, Congo, and the Mekong. Damming the available rivers to produce hydroelectric power may help provide a solution to the energy crisis but is also likely to create numerous contingencies that will affect the security and livelihoods of vulnerable communities.
Large hydropower projects are complex undertakings that have substantial effects on the social and environmental context in which they are situated. It is not surprising that we are increasingly seeing hydropower dam plans and construction stopped or slowed by social actions – Belo Monte in Brazil, El Diquis in Costa Rica, and the HydroAsen dams in Chile jump to mind. There is increasing resistance to large dams in the same way that local communities and civil society have reacted to extractive industries.
One of the main development challenges of this century is therefore how to address the quandary of, on one hand, needing to generate more “renewable” energy and, on the other hand, addressing the pervasive and substantial impacts from large dams. I am certainly not the first, nor last, to argue that the solution lies in (1) deciding to build the right project in the right place and, (2) building and operating the project right.
Building the right project in the right place means ensuring that the decision to build a hydroelectric project is taken after thinking through how that project and other existing or planned projects will affect socio-ecological systems. Ultimately, this process of planning needs to take into account many different factors including energy generation needs, transmission capacities, and distribution but must also take into account the social and environmental risks that arise locally and at a basin scale and issues like climate resilience. A planning measure that has been experimentally established in Costa Rica as part of the Reventazon hydropower project and in the Chaglla project in Peru – is that of ensuring the protection of “intact rivers” through establishing an aquatic offset to compensate for the residual impacts of a dam. This means that when hydropower plants are built, an associated river should be maintained “intact” or free of hydropower barriers allowing for fish migrations or maintaining species that are affected by the new dam. As an example, in Costa Rica, the Parismina River will be protected from hydropower establishment as part of the Reventazon Hydropower Project. Indeed, Costa Rica has gone further when the President of Costa Rica declared the Savegre and Pacuare Rivers as free of hydropower development in a broader framework for hydropower development in the country. In a perfect world, all countries would decide to concentrate their hydropower in the rivers that caused least environmental and social damage and leave the rivers of highest social and ecological value to be managed for those values and remain free of hydropower.
Once a project has been sited, there are also a growing number of tools to support building and operating a project right. Because of the complexity of hydropower projects, traditional environmental impact assessments may be insufficient to identify and manage impacts and risks. Consequently, tools such as cumulative impact assessments, detailed biodiversity inclusive impact assessments and sustainability assessment tools like the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol are increasingly being used to measure and enhance sustainability in projects. Ultimately, improved upstream planning for hydropower will include integrated planning at basin and national scales and improved designs that enhance management of environmental and social impacts in projects.
Photo by Joseph Dsilva / CC BY 2.0