Hydropower Industry Needs Standards, not Scorecards, to be Sustainable

Zachary Hurwitz

Itaipú dam
Itaipú dam

The International Hydropower Association (IHA) just launched the “Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol” (HSAP) at its bi-yearly Congress in the town of Foz do Iguaçú, Brazil, last week. The Protocol is in reality only a scorecard that rewards hydropower companies and financiers with a greenwashed stamp of approval; it does not represent a true step towards the actual practice of sustainability in the sector.

The Protocol is a risky way of helping developers achieve true social and environmental sustainability, because it doesn’t require developers to meet any standards, nor fulfill any laws. At the heart of the Protocol is a point-based rewards system, similar to a frequent flyer program: accumulating a higher amount of points would allow a developer to claim that its projects are sustainable.

However, the governance committee formed by the IHA to oversee the terms and conditions of the Protocol, including the methodologies and peer review of Protocol assessments, includes a large number of hydropower companies themselves. This presents a large conflict of interest, and ultimately, a risk to investors.  With the HSAP, significant problems may be greenwashed instead of taken into account, their costs valued, and proper steps taken to fix errors before they occur.  HSAP does not penalize developers legally or monetarily if errors are found.

The hydropower industry needs real sustainability evaluation measures. Many of these already exist. The recommendations of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) are timeless guidelines for social and environmental sustainability for hydropower projects. Since 2001, the WCD guidelines have influenced numerous international accords, financial safeguards, and national laws.

Brazil's largest dam, Itaipú
Brazil's largest dam, Itaipú
Courtesy of CleanTechnica.

For example, the WCD recognized the importance of a full evaluation of energy options to meet energy matrix needs, before putting a hydro project onto paper.  The HSAP only promotes alternative siting scenarios for dams that are already assumed will be approved.  Unfortunately, too frequently, energy and water planning is guarded secretively by governments, sometimes in conjunction with dam builders, closed off to the participation of civil society and citizens at large.

For these early stages of hydropower planning to be considered truly sustainable, government and industry must prioritize transparency, by inviting civil society to the table to discuss and agree upon what a country’s energy matrix should look like.

Similarly, for the implementation of a dam to be truly sustainable, hydropower companies and dam financiers must be held accountable to a policy of access to information in which project risks and benefits are properly divulged to affected communities through culturally-appropriate forms of dialogue.   Obtaining consent through dialogue — above and beyond simply holding public hearings — is crucial to any developer that wants to call itself sustainable.

At the heart of the Protocol is what might be interpreted as a good intention: we should help hydropower companies to want to  incorporate sustainability concepts on their own, in the hope that these might translate into practice. Nonetheless, a voluntary score card presents too much of a risk that poor practices may be greenwashed in public, only to continue behind closed doors. This will only produce poor results.  Instead, hydropower companies should, and can, learn to see policy standards and regulations not as costs, but as the best way to do business.

The terms and conditions of use of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol have been approved, and should be released to the public soon. It remains to be seen what credibility the Protocol will achieve. Nonetheless, contrary to the principles of transparency and participation espoused by the document itself, neither Southern civil society nor dam-affected peoples’ movements were invited to the table to discuss or participate in its creation. As a result, it has now become important to publicly scrutinize the results of Protocol sustainability assessments.  In this way, we may hold developers, governments, and financiers accountable to the real standards that define best practices in the industry.

Originally published in CleanTechnica