E&E: Big Dams are Booming Business, but Politics Remain Difficult

Julia Pyper, ClimateWire
Friday, May 31, 2013

In the United States, big hydropower projects like the Hoover Dam are things of the past. But big dams are a booming business in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where countries are eagerly looking for ways to meet their growing energy needs.

Stakeholders met at the International Hydropower Association's (IHA) biennial world congress last week in Kuching, Malaysia, with the goal of advancing hydropower more sustainably.

The conference marked the release of the first official hydroelectric project assessments using the industry's Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP). The tool launched in 2011 enables dam builders to assess various sustainability topics, including biodiversity, erosion, infrastructure safety and downstream flow regimes.

Protestors assert that the dozen hydroelectric dams planned for the state of Sarawak, Malaysia, will require thousands of indigenous people to be forcibly resettled. Photo by Lee Long Hui, courtesy of International Rivers.

The protocol also includes guidelines on engaging with indigenous peoples and identifies the potential for reservoirs to produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many environmental and human rights groups have come out in support of the HSAP. But others have pointed to the lack of external oversight in HSAP assessments as an easy way for companies to "greenwash" their big dam projects. Also, because it's a voluntary measure, some groups say it's likely to have a small impact on the major hydro projects cropping up throughout the developing world.

In Malaysia, the state-owned utility Sarawak Energy Berhad plans to build 12 dams. The company has committed to using the HSAP but so far hasn't released any environmental impact information on its projects, according to the advocacy group International Rivers. Indigenous populations in affected areas also feel left in the dark on how their communities will be affected.

"There's this shroud of secrecy around the projects," Zachary Hurwitz, policy program coordinator at International Rivers, said in an interview from Malaysia.

Last Wednesday, more than 300 indigenous people protested against Sarawak Energy's dam projects on the island of Borneo outside the IHA summit. "It's really blown open this curtain to show that the IHA's attempt to have Sarawak Energy apply the sustainability tool may actually be a form of greenwash in the worst situation," Hurwitz said.

Small carbon footprint, other impacts remain large

Construction of Malaysia's Bakun Dam, Asia's largest dam outside China, displaced 10,000 indigenous people, according to indigenous groups. In 2012, the China Three Gorges Corp. reportedly began construction on the 944-megawatt Murum Dam in Malaysia's Sarawak state before conducting an environmental impact assessment, which left affected communities unable to negotiate their resettlement.

The next dam in line, the 1,200 MW Baram Dam, is expected to displace 20,000 people and flood more than 250 square miles of land. Submerging agricultural land and rainforest also has implications for the climate. Rotting vegetation in traditional storage reservoirs produces methane, which is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

More dams are coming off the drawing boards in other countries. Earlier this month, China's environment ministry approved the country's largest hydroelectric dam to be constructed over the next decade. The $4 billion project would have a 20-gigawatt capacity and generate more than 7 billion kilowatt-hours of energy each year.

On the other side of the globe, the battle over Brazil's Belo Monte Dam continues to rage on. The project being developed on the Xingu River, deep in the Amazon, has faced numerous legal challenges and occupations by indigenous tribes, as recently as this month.

While these projects can be controversial, the IHA says its members are "willing to engage in constructive dialogue" with indigenous communities and are committed to low-carbon growth.

"While efforts continue to assess the exact greenhouse gas footprint of all renewable energy sources, including hydropower, we can say with confidence that this technology has a relatively small footprint compared with other options," according to an emailed statement from the IHA. "Hydropower generates some 3,400 [terawatt-hours] per year of electricity, significantly offsetting emissions that would otherwise be caused by production from fossil-fuel sources."

"Most of the unrealized potential exists in the developing world, precisely where the needs for water and energy services are the greatest," the statement continued. "The growing fleet of hydropower stations, if developed sustainably, will help offset [greenhouse gas] emissions as well as contribute to green growth."

Aid banks like them, green groups not so much

In recent years, the World Bank has scaled up its support for hydropower projects in developing countries. The bank stepped away from large hydropower projects in the 1990s due to their negative social and environmental impacts. However, the threat of climate change and overwhelming demand for energy has made them attractive once again.

The United States has even started to reconsider hydropower as a means of tackling climate change. "Hydro is back. Hydro is waaayyy back," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at a national hydropower symposium in Washington, D.C., last month (E&E Daily, April 23).

But Hurwitz said the notion that hydropower is the only low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels is wrong.

"Dams are now in vogue in emerging markets in part because the international lending community has painted large dams as an option for climate change mitigation and adaptation," he said. "There's a very troublesome binary that's emerged between fossils and dams that is being promoted by the Word Bank, the [International Finance Corp.], by the regional development banks, even by the United Nations and the [Group of 20] as well."

"It's a false dichotomy because each country has different resources," he added. "There's no silver bullet for climate change mitigation and adaptation, but large dams are certainly being spun that way."

Countries can maximize the energy they currently have through energy efficiency, he said. Other renewables like solar, wind and biomass are also viable energy sources in many developing countries.

But as populations grow and developing countries look for gigawatts of power to ease poverty and maximize welfare, one has to ask: at that scale, if not hydropower, what would the alternative be? 

Originally published on ClimateWire at http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059981973.