Beautiful words won’t save our last wild rivers

Through Jamie Pittock

Technologies to harness the power of water are touted as critical to a low-emission future. But for many decades, the hydroelectric industry caused serious damage to the environment and to people’s lives.

More than 500 new hydroelectric dams are currently planned or under construction in protected areas around the world. And some 260,000 kilometers of the last wild rivers – including the Amazon, the Congo, the Irrawaddy and the Salween – are threatened by dam projects.

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The global hydropower industry says the installed capacity of the technology must increase by more than 60% by 2050 if the world is to limit climate change. And the World Hydropower Congress, which held a distance from Costa Rica last month, proposed measures to expand with minimal damage.

But strict oversight and a commitment from banks and governments to only support sustainable pumping hydropower developments is urgently needed. Otherwise, the expanding industry could displace millions more, irreparably damage rivers and drive species to extinction.

New life to old technology

Hydroelectricity is an old technology that involves passing water from a reservoir through a turbine to produce electricity. One application, known as pumped storage, can store electricity produced by solar and wind power. In the age of climate change, pumped storage has given new life to hydropower technology.

Pumped hydropower uses excess renewable energy to pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. The water is then released downhill to produce electricity when needed, and then pumped out when the electricity becomes surplus again.

Technologies like wind and solar can only generate electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Pumped hydropower can make these generators more reliable by storing renewable energy when it is produced and then releasing it as needed.

Pumped hydraulic storage can be added to existing reservoirs on rivers. It can also be located off rivers, which can often lead to better social and environmental outcomes.

Research from the Australian National University this year identified around 616,000 potential sites around the world for pumped hydropower, including more than 3,000 in Australia. Developing less than 1% of them could support a fully renewable global energy system.

A bad record

Hydropower and associated dams have a long history of environmental and social damage. In addition to flooding ecosystems, farmlands and cities, hydroelectric projects significantly disrupt river flows. This, among other damage, can deprive wetlands in floodplains of water, block fish migration and reproduction, and reduce nutrient flows.

Globally, populations of freshwater species – including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish – have declined by about 84% since 1970, largely due to dams . In Tasmania, the flooding of the unique Lake Pedder ecosystem in the 1970s led to the extinction of several species.

And although hydropower is widely regarded as “clean” energy, it can generate significant amounts of greenhouse gases when flooded plants and trees decompose.

The emissions from most hydroelectric dams are comparable to the life cycle emissions of solar and wind generators. But on warmer tropical sites where vegetation is denser, reservoirs could have a higher emission rate than fossil-fueled electricity.

As early as 20 years ago, dams displaced 40 to 80 million people over the past half century. And dams have damaged the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people downstream over the past century.

But new hydroelectric projects are regularly proposed on sites where they will cause significant damage. And the social and environmental problems caused by hydroelectric dams continue in places as diverse as Colombia and the Mekong region of Southeast Asia.

The Snowy 2.0 pumped storage project in Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Australia highlights the tradeoffs involved in many hydropower developments. It promises to improve the reliability of solar and wind power, helping to mitigate climate change. But it also threatens two endangered fish species, and several thousand hectares of national park are being cleared for infrastructure.

A metamorphosis of the industry

Obviously, the global hydropower industry has public relations work to do, if its global expansion is to be achieved. The International Hydropower Association appears to have addressed this point, taking a sophisticated approach to improve the social acceptability of the industry.

The industry has actively engaged environmentalists in the preparation of sustainability standards. Voluntary assessment tools outline steps to minimize damage to people and the environment, and a new sustainability certification program for hydropower was launched at this month’s congress.

The industry has pledged not to build hydroelectric dams at World Heritage sites. He also proposed to “avoid, minimize, mitigate or compensate” for damage in protected areas (although he failed to provide full protection).

However, it is difficult to envision the systematic application of the new standards unless the governments of the major dam-building countries – especially China, India, Brazil and Turkey – adopt the standards in their processes. planning and approval.

And how will dishonest operators and irresponsible financiers be prevented from developing unsustainable projects, especially when some governments are determined to activate them?

It is in the interests of the International Hydropower Association, as a progressive part of the hydropower industry, to advocate for governments and financiers to assess proposed hydropower projects against new standards.

Do the least harm

Pumping hydropower has an important role to play in the transition to renewables, but only where projects cause minimal damage to people and nature.

Ensuring a sustainable industry in the future could be achieved by stopping damaging conventional hydroelectric projects on rivers. Instead, pumped storage projects should be developed when:

• an assessment shows that they meet the needs of an energy system

• environmental and social conflicts are minimal, as on off-river sites

• For projects in tropical areas, shallow reservoirs and flooding of vegetation are avoided in order to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

Pumped storage offers the hydropower industry a chance to reposition itself from villain to hero. The industry must now translate its words into practice. And financiers and government regulators should only support hydropower projects that genuinely seek to minimize environmental and social damage.

(The author is professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University.
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