Can you even have sustainability and hydropower in the same sentence? It’s a question that for years has challenged development practitioners (and bolstered critics) of this renewable source of energy. But the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is taking steps to help answer this question.
Hydropower can be massive in scale. In 2018, electricity generation from hydropower reached an estimated 4,200-terawatt hours (TWh), setting the highest ever contribution from a renewable energy source (International Hydropower Association, 2019). That’s enough to power more than 1.3 billion households per year (Based on the global consumption average of 3,132kWh per capita) (The World Bank, 2019).
Generating such incredible amounts of electricity requires infrastructure, which in turn generates impacts. Hydropower facilities can affect land use, homes, and natural habitats in the dam area. They can restrict the passage of fish and even change the water quality downstream. So, is the reward worth the impact? Can you in fact have hydropower that is not only sustainable but can also improve lives beyond the provision of electricity? The answers lie in how well you manage and mitigate the environmental and social risks.
Safeguards and Hydropower = Sustainability
The Reventazón Hydroelectric Plant in Costa Rica, financed by the IDB, is arguably the operation that best reflects the added value of the IDB’s Environmental and Social Safeguards. It is an operation where the Bank was able to work together with the executing agency Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) to achieve win-win scenarios with both the population and with the conservation of the environment and biodiversity, while always protecting the capacity of the plant to produce energy.
The hydroelectric plant uses the waters of the Reventazón river to generate over 1,500 GW/h of electricity per year. The energy produced will be used to supply the increased demand for electricity in Costa Rica.
As in many large infrastructure operations, it was important to conduct a thorough environmental and social impact assessment that would help identify and mitigate any negative impacts.
The reservoir was projected to fragment the connectivity of a nearby jaguar migration corridor.
The IDB supported the preparation of an environmental and social management plan to restore the connectivity of jaguar habitats through the heart of the Cordillera Central, where centuries of land use have resulted in the loss of forest cover and fragmentation of the corridor needed for jaguars and other forest species. Also, the Bank worked with ICE and the conservation group Panthera to promote reforestation and improved land use practices that will lead to the recovery for forest cover and connectivity. These practices include:
- Payments for ecosystem services to landholders;
- Capacity building in sustainable land use for greater efficiency in cattle grazing;
- Provisions of seedlings for planting; and
- Environmental education
These practices are expected to help reconnect the forest cover while also providing farmers with knowledge and support to improve the productivity of their farms.
Construction of the hydroelectric plant required the resettlement of several families.
It is a key aspect of the IDB’s social policies to ensure that when people must be displaced, they should not be worse-off after they are relocated. The IDB worked closely with ICE to ensure that resettled families were not just given compensation for the value of their land but would also have improved living conditions. If a family owned a farm, they were given space and land to cultivate and to maintain their livestock. Families that were living in areas prone to flooding were given new housing in areas with little or no risk. The IDB and ICE worked closely with these families to foster sustainable livelihoods and provide them with the opportunities to thrive.
Operating the plant would alter and reduce the river flow, impacting the natural habitat.
Perhaps one of the most unavoidable impacts of building hydropower plants is the effect they have on the water source, in this case the river itself. The Reventazon Dam will cause the fragmentation of the river downstream and will have an impact on the natural habitat, including migratory aquatic species. The IDB and ICE worked together to create an innovative approach to this challenge; they worked with communities in the area to improve the water quality of the Parismina river, a sister basin of Reventazon, and ensure it would remain a healthy free-flowing river, which can be used by the migratory species affected by the Reventazon Dam.
The Parismina offset, the first aquatic offset in all Latin America, will be protected through perpetuity by Costa Rican law. Communities living near the basin are already seeing improvements in the water quality of the Parismina and are taking steps with ICE’s help to ensure that the river continues to improve.
Improving Lives with Sustainable Hydropower
The Reventazon Hydroelectric Plant is an example of how proper management and mitigation of environmental and social risks can improve the lives of communities while protecting the natural resources they depend on. It is one of the reasons why the Plant was awarded the International Hydropower Association’s Blue Planet Prize in 2019. The prize is given to a hydropower operation which demonstrates excellence across a range of social, environmental, technical and economic performance criteria.
Can this model of sustainable hydropower be replicated across the region? The answer is that every case is different. Some of the approaches from the Reventazon Hydroelectric Plant may not be feasible in other countries, or just simply have other challenges that need to be addressed. But Reventazon demonstrates how an operation with proper support from institutions, communities and the country itself can be more than just a source of electricity. It can be a source of sustainable development and livelihoods.