Proving Sustainability in the Dam Industry

Simone Adler
Dr. Refaat Abdel-Malek, President of the International Hydropower Association
Dr. Refaat Abdel-Malek, President of the International Hydropower Association at the 2011 IHA World Congress

Sustainability is all the rage these days, and it very well should be. It is important to create a world that lives within its means and is prepared for long-term health and well-being by using less, becoming more conscious of our local environment, and remembering that humans are a part of a larger ecosystem, though we have historically sought to control it. In any case, “sustainability” is such a buzzword that, like “going green” a few years ago, its ubiquity has displaced its meaning, which may actually forebode dangerous consequences considering the principles, ideas, and activities that sustainability has come to represent.

The Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) is just one such example of the buzzword’s ambiguity. The International Hydropower Association (IHA) launched the HSAP in 2011 as a set of voluntary guidelines for the hydropower industry to assess the social and environmental performance of hydroelectric dams. Jumping on the sustainable veggie-powered bandwagon, the IHA’s Protocol considers 19-23 relevant sustainability topics in a score-card fashion for the IHA’s license-granted consultants to check off when assessing a dam’s social and environmental criteria at various stages. Doesn’t sound so bad considering the dismal record of dams and displacement and ecological damage, but the HSAP risks weakening existing social and environmental standards in the dam sector because of the conflict-of-interest present in the industry’s approach. For example, the stated aim of HSAP may be to improve the environmental and social performance of large dams, but underlying this is the industry’s ultimate goal of ensuring that proposed projects are funded and get built. This conflict-of-interest will continue during the project assessments, as the assessors will be from the hydro-industry itself, and must be licensed by the IHA. And if that’s not enough, HSAP was developed without the participation of dam-affected people in the Global South or Southern civil society organizations, is vague in language about community participation, does not call for free, prior and informed consent of indigenous or tribal peoples, and the “average scoring method” ignores the differing importance of various sustainability criteria, so a dam can be labeled as “sustainable” even if it scores poorly in critical issues such as resettlement.

So, who is actually going to use the HSAP and how will this have an effect on the future of “sustainable” dams, whatever that means? There are 11 hydro-industry corporations that have eagerly signed on to the Protocol, perhaps because it has a really cool and trendy name, it represents a public relations opportunity, and by signing on, they have been granted the even trendier title of “Sustainability Partner”.  These corporations have also eagerly embraced “sustainability” in their businesses, creating entire webpages about their sustainable development, sustainable priorities, sustainable economic growth, and supporting sustainable communities. One may very well become confused on what this actually means, since “sustainable” has become a prefix for every activity that needs public approval but may warrant public scrutiny. An annual guide to political and corporate newspeak identified the word “sustainable” as 2009’s most over-used and potentially damaging piece of jargon. The lexicon guide, created by the Center for Policy Studies in London, opens with the phrase: “Few words have become more heavily used or abused in government and corporate affairs than ‘sustainable’. It now occupies a lofty position in the towering hierarchy of buzzwords.” Expanding on the different definitions of ‘sustainable’ and how it is used, the report keenly notes that it can disguise risk as certainty, experiment as surety, and an unknowable future as ‘sustainable’. In other words, corporations can greenwash their services and businesses as sustainable, and even more so with the stamp-of-approval from the IHA.

As of right now, the HSAP has not been widely mentioned on these 11 Sustainability Partner’s corporate websites or in their publications since no official assessments using the HSAP have been made. However, research into these corporation’s past and current commitments has revealed the common practice of supporting certain guidelines, standards, and protocols, and waving them as bright green eco-friendly flags that signal an initiative of corporate social responsibility, transparency, and, yes, sustainability.

Some of the Partners have even changed the name of their Annual Reports to “Sustainability Reports” (such as E.ON), and many have created a Sustainability Policy (such as Odebrecht) or a Corporate Social Responsibility Agreement (such as EDF). Common sustainability commitments include the United Nations Global Compact, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Kyoto Protocol and Clean Development Mechanism, the Equator Principles, and standard-certificates issued by the International Organization for Standardization. Some of the Partners are on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, or have partnered with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. These may all be really significant initiatives that can direct the future of corporate practice, however their implementation and enforcement is what really matters.

Further research into these Sustainability Partners reveals that these initiatives have basically created a really robust public relations campaign, but have failed to be reported on in an accessible and transparent manner. Where can one find the results of an environmental assessment? If an independent auditor is making the assessments, who is it, what framework or criteria are used, and where are the reports? How are all the sustainability priorities of these corporations implemented? What types of considerations are taken into account when conducting environmental flows assessments to protect biodiversity? Annual Reports make very few, if any, references to the actual sustainable performance of these hydropower projects or any other projects in their business portfolios, yet they are sure to report on the energy-efficiency of their home offices and how much corporate headquarters recycled last year.

What this shows is that the buzzword is a top priority for these corporations and is certainly in their interest. In all seriousness, if a clearly-defined sustainable approach to hydropower is a concern for corporations, then they have a great opportunity to gain public support in their areas of operation. But the HSAP could be just another commitment to tag onto their greenwashing campaign, and may not have much of an impact on sustainable hydropower. If these Sustainability Partners follow the same low-key approach in disclosing the implementation of these sustainable initiatives, then the HSAP will do nothing to improve corporate transparency, public accessibility to this information, and, most importantly, sustainability.

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