Blog: Hydropower Back on the Agenda

13 June 2013 | News story

By James Dalton. I just came back from the International Hydropower Association (IHA) Congress in Kuching – the capital of the Malaysian State of Sarawak on Borneo. We wanted to see what progress had been made in the application of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) following its launch at the last IHA Congress two years ago. Sarawak has a reputation for controversy around its dams – and I was not disappointed.

The first thing to understand is that dams are controversial. They bring huge energy benefits supplying around 17% of global energy demand, but cause massive disruption to river systems, riparian habitats, and to those that live in the river basins. They provide carbon ‘free’ (although not entirely) energy – and the energy they produce is often promoted as inexpensive. During construction they can provide many jobs and lucrative contracts, and consequently they are often used for political gain, and as a show of national pride and power.

Hydropower dams in Sarawak are a little different though – but maybe they are the shape of things to come? The Sarawak Government has developed something called the Sarawak Corridor for Renewable Energy – a growth corridor fuelled by up to 12 dams supplying energy for major industrial development in Sarawak. Setting aside the environmental impacts for now – who needs this amount of power? Sarawak already produces more energy than it needs – is the future going to see dams built to attract follow-on industrial investment – energy supply before the demand?

At the Congress the World Bank announced it was back with a pledge for $1 billion to support hydropower in the poorest countries. The Bank now views hydropower as the key to reducing energy poverty in a world where we must stay below 4oC of warming. But in the big scheme of things $1 billion is loose change in today’s investment world. Sarawak Energy has already attracted around $20 billion in industrial investment, with plans to quadruple this as more dams come online. Their aim is to provide power to trigger energy-hungry growth industries such as aluminium, glass, oil, and steel industries and their derivatives.

So what, realistically, can an organisation like the World Bank and others such as IHA do? One thing is to focus on standards – improving technical, social and environmental best practice through continuous improvement. The Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) is a tool for the assessment of individual hydropower projects applicable to all stages of hydropower development. It is real progress for a dam building community of engineers and turbine developers – despite the Protocol receiving criticism for not going far enough in some areas. There are now five official Protocol Assessments available online and more are ongoing.

I was impressed that the HSAP was a common discussion piece amongst delegates at the Congress. It was only launched two years ago and seems to be gaining traction. Of course, things could happen quicker. Yet HSAP does need support to ensure it is improved, and that assessments are transparently reported. Internal use of the Protocol for self-assessment is a Corporate Social Responsibility exercise, but transparently displaying the results is where the more progressive Governments and dam operators are moving.

This learning did not appear to happen in Sarawak. The opening Plenary of the Congress saw Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers) Chairman Peter Kallang stand up uninvited and address the 500 delegates. He opened with ‘We are against the dams’ – and was allowed to speak and get across his points. Following the Plenary around 300 peaceful protestors stood outside the conference centre to get their point across. For me this is where the confusion started. I was handed leaflets about Government corruption, no schools, rights and local opposition – I walked away with a mixture of issues with no real understanding of the actual message – and then I turned to the newspapers. I saw 18 articles, but there were many more. There was a mixture of pro-government messages, anti-dam perspectives, and a spokesmen for 22 communities saying ‘We are not against the dams…’.

I saw this as a missed opportunity. I was confused by the points civil society was trying to get across, and the impact of the dams on environment and on ecosystem services was not evident at all. The social issues were clearly evident – and quite rightly, but the populations involved were small, and there are clear strategies available and compensation approaches for how to deal with these issues. For sure they are difficult, but there is global learning out there, and a lot of experience. The Asian Development Bank provided an excellent session on this at the Congress. So why had Sarawak got this so wrong?

I am not sure I can really answer this question – but looking across the Congress a few things became clearer. Growth and the push for development are clearly writing the hydropower agenda, but there is a gap in learning from past experience when it comes to hydropower development. As I mentioned earlier, dams and large scale infrastructure provide jobs, are convenient political keystones, and bring with them a sense of national pride and development. Sometimes the pace of this doesn’t allow for certain checkpoints to ensure best practice is being followed and innovation, beyond dam design, is being brought to the project design table. Over the Congress it became clear that Sarawak Energy was realising this too – admitting they did make mistakes and do need to learn from best practice for the next dam in the energy supply pipeline. I just hope investors, civil society, international organisations, and the International Hydropower Association can provide the knowledge and capacity development in time. Dam builders and operators and civil society clearly need to work closer together to jointly solve both the social and environmental challenges.

One thing I also realised on my way home was that I did not really know the energy portfolio of Switzerland where I live. In the early 1970s Switzerland was fuelled almost 90% by hydropower. This is now around 56% due to nuclear power taking over some of the growing energy demand in the last 30 years: 556, yes, that’s right, 556 hydropower plants across Switzerland provide over half our daily energy needs. It’s worthwhile remembering this when we decide to criticise others for looking at low carbon development options.