Dam Greenwashing Flows at World Water Forum

Zachary Hurwitz

“Sustainability” Tool Protects Dam Builders, Not Rivers and Rights

The stated goal of this year’s World Water Forum – the world’s largest meeting devoted to water – is to create solutions to the water, energy, and food challenges presented by climate change and economic growth. However, some of the “solutions” being presented will do more to protect business-as-usual interests rather than spark innovative approaches to tackling our most pressing water-related problems.

The sixth World Water Forum (this year in Marseille, France from March 12-17) is, like its predecessors, heavily weighted with corporate players, including many from the large-dam industry, making pitches for large-scale projects and private-sector approaches. One corporate “solution” on the agenda this year, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), proposes to replace the “best practice” recommendations of the World Commission on Dams with a voluntary, non-binding scorecard that allows dam builders to assess the social and environmental performance of each other’s projects. HSAP is more about protecting the right to build large dams than protecting the rights of the millions of people who depend on rivers for their daily needs. It is conceivable that HSAP could be used to greenwash some of the world's most destructive dams.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA), a London-based organization of the world's most active dam builders, prepared the HSAP in cooperation with other institutions. Some of IHA's “Platinum Members” include the Three Gorges Corporation, Statkraft, Electricité de France (EDF), Itaipú Binacional, Odebrecht, and other dam-industry giants. IHA is heavily promoting the HSAP at the World Water Forum, and is seeking 20 countries to adopt the scorecard by 2015.

The Wrong Approach

The HSAP will do little to improve dam builders' commitments to the highest social and environmental standards, because it lacks the teeth of regulations and safeguard policies. HSAP's voluntary approach does not hold dam builders accountable for human rights violations committed during community resettlement, or for impacts on indigenous people, for example, because the HSAP does not require developers to comply with national legislation. HSAP will not prevent corruption, cost overruns, poor performance, or penalize dam builders in any monetary way, because it is not benchmarked against the world's highest social and environmental loan safeguards.

In fact, HSAP does not require dam builders to do anything at all. It only offers “good practice” and “best practice” guidelines that are quantified into a point system. Developers are rewarded points for voluntarily implementing better practices during the various stages of a hydropower project. It’s a surprisingly inexact model for an industry based on precision engineering. It’s also one based on an inherent conflict of interest; the dam industry created and controls the use of this tool. Most HSAP project assessors come from the hydropower industry itself. Rather than reflect a move toward “sustainable hydropower,” HSAP’s lack of rigor and conflict of interest merely adds to the impression that big hydro is a corrupt industry unwilling to subject itself to outside criticism.

HSAP assessments are structured in such a way that results will always tend to be partial to industry interests. For example, HSAP assessors are not required to engage with project-affected communities. Meanwhile, participation of civil society in the scoring of the assessment, or in the creation of the assessment itself, is neither guaranteed nor safeguarded. Rather, civil society is given a 60-day consultation period once an HSAP assessment is made public, which occurs when the developer decides to publish it on IHA's HSAP website.

Any published project can be granted a label of “sustainable hydropower” by IHA –regardless of the assessment score. In other words, HSAP does not require developers to do anything but self-assess their projects. A blatant example of the self-promotional aspect of HSAP is that dam builders can purchase the title of "Sustainability Partner" by paying £65,000 to the IHA and committing to utilize HSAP on their projects.

Ethiopia's dam boom is hardly
Ethiopia's dam boom is hardly "green"

The clearest example of the danger of the HSAP greenwash is in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has used harsh tactics to silence critics of its Gibe III and Grand Millennium dam projects. Social and environmental impacts have been ignored. Even very large, destructive dams have begun construction without any studies into their impacts. Yet, the International Hydropower Association granted Ethiopia’s national utility the status of "Sustainability Partner" in April 2011.

Another example comes from India. The National Hydropower Company of India (NHPC) used a trial version of the HSAP on the Teesta V Dam in 2010. The dam had been completed for three years, yet social and environmental problems remain unresolved. According to evidence gathered by local groups, project mitigation and compensation efforts had fallen well short of “best practice.” Faulty infrastructure marked affected communities' resettlement areas; monetary compensation for land had not been paid; and relocated communities were never given access to educational services, among other violations. Yet the trial HSAP scores for the dam's operational stage were at the highest levels – signaling that NHPC followed “best practices,” and that Teesta V was a “sustainable dam.”

Civil Society Pushes Back

The HSAP process never had any real buy-in from civil society. The only civil society organizations to support the HSAP are The Nature Conservancy, Transparency International, and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). WWF long ago decided to partner with corporations to create "sustainable" commodity chains, and the HSAP is the latest example of WWF's efforts. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and dam-affected peoples' movements of the Global South – where most new dams are being built – were never consulted by IHA, and never approved of the HSAP. Indigenous people, who generally suffer the impacts of hydropower more egregiously than other communities, were also never consulted.

The good news is that in response to HSAP, international civil society and dam-affected peoples' movements are developing a rights-based guide to the highest social and environmental standards developed for hydropower projects. The guide will build the capacity of civil society organizations and dam-affected people to hold dam builders and financiers accountable, to analyze projects based on the best standards, and to reveal when destructive dams are merely being greenwashed. Where governments do not adhere to these standards, civil society may leverage the guide to promote legislative reform at home. The guide is currently in development, and is set to launch in June 2012.

Standards Cannot Be Set by Corporations

The World Water Forum 6 in Marseille will kick off a series of meetings and reports by the world's governments and corporations regarding the future of the world's water. Following the World Water Forum, the dam industry will reconvene in June at the Rio+20 meeting in Brazil, where it is expected that dams will again be promoted as a solution to poverty and climate change, and a stimulus to economic growth. The HSAP's approach provides a lesson to the future of water, energy, and the hydropower sector. Corporations must be held accountable to the highest binding standards, the rule of law, and public and civil society oversight. Without these, any voluntary self-policing initiative is bound to lead to corruption and a lack of implementation.

This is especially significant in today's financial environment. Many middle-income countries, such as China, Brazil, and India, are increasingly able to finance their own dams. Yet many middle-income countries are loath to endorse international norms, or adhere to international standards in their national legislation. In these cases especially, it is dangerous to allow dam builders to police themselves using voluntary tools.

Instead, national regulatory frameworks for potentially destructive infrastructure projects such as large dams must be harmonized upward, and civil society must be given equal standing in decision-making. The real challenge for the World Water Forum 6 – and for Rio+20 – will be to ensure that governments create meaningful, binding laws of their own that safeguard the social and environmental rights of people affected by the dam industry. Allowing developers to simply greenwash dams as “sustainable” with no benchmark in national laws, no buy-in from civil society, and no mechanism for true accountability – as the HSAP allows – is a step in the wrong direction.