Chinese Hydropower Scorecard Doesn't Fill the Accountability Gap

Zachary Hurwitz

Great Bend of the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) River, China
Great Bend of the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) River, China

The International Hydropower Association launched its non-binding sustainability guidelines scorecard in Beijing today, hoping to attract Chinese dam builders to what is turning out to be the world's latest industry-led greenwash.

Yet the scorecard, called the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), may do little to fill the accountability gap that exists between country regulatory systems.  The HSAP makes no requirement of developers to comply with national and international legislation.

What's more, the HSAP has no real buy-in from civil society, who are the true arbiters of credibility.  The civil society organizations partnering with the HSAP are large, mainstreamed NGOs including WWF and The Nature Conservancy, the former of which long ago decided to partner with industry to create "sustainable" commodity chains.  Nor have indigenous people bought in, outside of those tribes who are already in bed with a hydropower developer.  Indigenous people often suffer hydropower impacts more egregiously than other dam-affected populations.

Third, the HSAP requires no bottom line standards.  Any developer who completes an assessment and publishes it online receives a "sustainable hydropower” tag, independent of the scores they receive.  In other words, it's enough for a developer to make a public claim; it is not necessary to comply with any binding norm.  Developers pay in 65,000 pounds to earn the title "HSAP Sustainability Partner," and an assessor is assigned to produce a sustainability report.

In China as in elsewhere, it has become common practice to streamline environmental impact assessments in order to meet investment deadlines.  EIAs are seen as just another bureaucratic step to achieving a construction, installation, or operation license.  The HSAP may be successful in incentivizing developers to improve EIAs - but what happens when a government unilaterally weakens its own laws? Or worse, does not abide by them?

China's Upper Yangtze (Jinsha) River Basin is home to endangered fish such as the Chinese Paddle, the Acipenser Dabryanus, and Chinese suckers, as well as their spawning grounds.  In 2000, the National Nature Reserve for Rare and Endemic Fish was established to safeguard the species and the freshwater ecosystem that housed them from the impacts of hydropower development.  This year, in a complete reversal, the Chinese Ministry of Environment is considering redrawing the boundaries of the Nature Reserve to make way for a new hydropower reservoir.  The Upper Yangtze's population of rare and endemic fish species will be drastically reduced, and no one will be held accountable.

The boundaries of the Nature Reserve were reduced once already, in 2005, when the Xiluodu Dam and Xiangjiaba Dam were built, two of many dams planned for the Jinsha River.  Now, the Chinese Ministry of the Environment has proposed to further reduce the reserve by 1460.40 hectares, or about 14 million square meters, to make way for the reservoir of the Xiaonanhai Dam in Chongqing municipality.  The Xiaonanhai Dam is one of scores of dams proposed by the Chinese government in their most recent Five-Year Plan, which calls for an unprecedented expansion of hydropower totaling near 140GW.  This far eclipses the number of dams ever built by any other country in history.

Map of Jinsha River hydropower projects
Map of Jinsha River hydropower projects

The Chinese government's unilateral maneuver to reduce its own conservation units to make way for a dam illustrates the accountability gap that exists between high-income countries, which have developed rotund standards for hydropower development through meaningful consultation with civil society, and middle-income and emerging economies, which have yet to adhere to international environmental and social norms, and very rarely consult civil society if at all.  Given this context, HSAP's non-binding rewards system will only allow dam builders to greenwash China's dams while the country's regulatory system still suffers from serious shortcomings.

Of course, it is the right, and increasingly the ability of middle-income countries to finance their own projects, and they are free to reject both World Bank investment loans as well as the Bank's conditionality-laden and sometimes costly safeguards if they want to.  Yet, for better or for worse, the World Bank's Operational Policies and the IFC's Performance Standards still represent a few of the world's most well developed systems of risk and sustainability assessment and project-level precautionary measures.  The challenge from here forward will be in answering the following question: how will emerging market governments take on the task of creating real, binding laws of their own to implement social and environmental best practices in the sector, above and beyond using voluntary scorecards to simply greenwash projects?

Given the lack of accountability and the intransigence of lawmakers in many governments that are developing through hydropower, today's Beijing launch of the HSAP may not make much of a difference to the BRICS.  They may still take to rapidly changing or even breaking their own laws without much consequence or oversight.  Instead of window dressings like the HSAP, these governments need to implement real accountability mechanisms and lasting, binding standards for the hydropower sector.

This post was originally published in CleanTechnica.

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