To Lead on Biodiversity, the World Bank Must Champion Environmental Flows

Zachary Hurwitz
Flows on the Kagera River will be severely altered if a dam is built on the Rusumo Falls.

Yesterday in Tokyo, I chaired a panel at the World Bank's Civil Society Policy Forum to discuss with the Bank how it can improve its record on downstream biodiversity and livelihood impacts in dam sector investments. The panel had three goals: to examine the Bank's record in promoting environmental flows and avoiding downstream impacts; to understand what policy language currently exists that deals with these areas; and to discuss how these policies can be improved upon during the Bank's imminent Safeguards Review.

What are environmental flows? In generic terms, they are the water and water-related flows necessary to maintain given parameters of ecosystem health and function, and the culturally and socially desirable ecosystem services that result.

Dams, including both large storage and run-of-the-river storage, and other water infrastructure, such as basin transfer schemes, pumped storage, multipurpose storage, and river channelization, all alter environmental flows, and cause downstream impacts.

Meanwhile, climate change is altering the global water cycle, and the hydrological flows available for storage. Unfortunately, the World Bank's response has been to promote larger dam storage to capture reducing flows, and to defer mitigation of the great social and ecological impacts of flow alteration to project implementation.

Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh, Executive Director of Green Innovation and Development Centre in Vietnam discussed the World Bank's record in the Trung Son hydropower project. She illustrated that there is already an over-exploitation of hydropower in 10 of 13 large rivers in Vietnam, and that the government has no legal framework in place for the management of environmental flows. The Trung Son Dam reduces flow downstream leading to reduced water supply and reduced fisheries, and the management of the resulting social impacts has been insufficiently addressed by World Bank support.

Ms. Satomi Higashi, Laos Program Director of Mekong Watch in Japan, presented data on the poor implementation of mitigation programs of the World Bank and ADB co-financed Nam Theun 2 hydropower project. Nam Theun 2 diverts flow from its reservoir to the neighboring Xe Bang Fai River, where the resulting flow increases have caused unnatural flood flows and erosion, causing losses to fish catches and livelihoods. Ms. Higashi provided on-the-ground evidence that implementation of the World Bank safeguards policies has been insufficient in addressing these issues.

Finally, I reviewed data from some of the Bank's past investments in dam infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa, to examine whether the Bank was successful in protecting environmental flows, biodiversity, and downstream livelihoods. Evaluation reports from the Bank's Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) show an increased incidence of zoonotic diseases, loss of biodiversity, and livelihood impacts to downstream communities occurred in these investments. I argued that the Bank's poor attention to environmental flows early on, and poor implementation of mitigation plans, have been the culprit.

The World Bank is returning to investments in hydropower and dam infrastructure, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Dams in the pipeline, including Lom Pangar Dam in Cameroon, Rusumo Falls Dam in Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi, and Kaleta Dam in Guinea, will all cause downstream impacts on biodiversity and livelihoods. The Kaleta Dam is even projected to impact a Ramsar Wetlands Biodiversity Site. It is unclear how or even if environmental flows were designed into these projects.

Stephen Lintner, Senior Technical Advisor at the Bank and the author of the original safeguards policies close to two decades ago, responded that implementation of safeguards does need to improve, but highlighted that borrowers need to feel ownership of this implementation process, which requires capacity-building. He also stated that one project in the investment pipeline— the Rusumo Falls project— has been redesigned as a run-of-the-river dam instead of a multipurpose dam project. He also showed an interest in improving how biodiversity considerations were mainstreamed into hydropower sector investments.

However, our panel illustrated that a better and more cost effective approach to development is to protect biodiversity and downstream livelihoods at the earliest stages of planning and investment. The stronger the environmental flows design, the greater the ecosystem and community resilience.

As the Bank returns to investing in hydropower both directly and through public-private partnerships, there is a pressing need to strengthen the Bank's safeguards policies to make sure that investments in “clean energy” don't end up accelerating the disappearance of the Earth's freshwater species and riverine communities.