A Time for Rivers: The Tide Is Turning

My friends, we are winning.

I don’t say that lightly. This past year has been fraught with challenges for the environmental movement, and some soul-crushing defeats, but the movement to protect our precious freshwater is gaining unprecedented traction. 

The river protection movement has experienced more successes in the last six months than we have seen at any time during the past 15 years. From China to Brazil to Congo, communities are standing up for their right to free-flowing, healthy water. Big dam projects are losing funding. Governments are canceling hydropower projects. Dam builders are relinquishing their water rights to pristine rivers.

These victories could not come at a more needed time. Climate change is increasingly disrupting our water cycle with devastating floods and epic droughts. The world is being forced to recognize that we simply cannot live without reliable access to healthy rivers – rivers that feed families, nourish our fertile river basins with life-giving sediment, and insulate our communities from the looming devastation of drought and flood.  

Moreover, the economics and the science are on our side. Building large dams is a costly, destructive, wasteful use of development dollars that devastates communities for generations, and can cause ecological collapse in vibrant ecosystems. We urgently need clean energy that serves the needs of the poor, not lines the pockets of corrupt power-brokers. 

A Turnaround

Just three years ago, things were looking bleak for river communities. The World Bank had started embracing mega-dams once again, and dam builders added more new hydropower plants than ever before in 2013; no less than 3700 hydropower dams were under construction or in the pipeline. Their crown jewel was the $80 billion Grand Inga scheme on the Congo River, the biggest hydropower project ever considered.

We and our partners did not lose hope. We doubled down on our campaigns, and this year, our work bore fruit: In country after country where we’ve waged sustained campaigns for years, governments, financiers and companies started putting the breaks on this destructive, runaway development: 

  • Brazil: The Ministry of the Environment cancelled the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam, the biggest proposed hydropower project in the Amazon, in August. The Ministry also suspended the operating license of the giant Belo Monte Dam over the violation of numerous public health conditions. It was a small win for communities that will suffer the effects of this dam for generations. Public prosecutors are now working to stamp out the corruption that allowed this boondoggle into the planning cycle. We desperately need energy solutions around the world, but those decisions should be made in the public interest and not according to who can cut the biggest check.   
  • Chile: The dam builder Endesa cancelled six hydropower projects planned for five Chilean rivers, two of them wild and scenic rivers in Patagonia. The company cited determined civil society resistance as one major reason they were pulling out. Now we’re working with Chilean civil society and global experts to permanently protect these rivers from further threats, a model we hope to replicate in the world’s most precious river basins. 
  • Peru: The new government of Peru announced in early October that it does not plan to move forward with several large dams on the Marañón, a major tributary of the Amazon. The government argued that the projects would flood too much land for the small amount of electricity they could generate, signaling to the world that destructive energy isn’t worth the human and ecological cost. 
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: On September 22, the World Bank cancelled its support of the Congo River’s Inga 3 Dam, the biggest hydropower project ever considered. The project, if built, will export the majority of its power, while leaving the Congolese people in the dark.
  • China:  In late November, China’s State Energy Administration confirmed that it will not build any hydroelectric dams on the country’s last wild river, the Nu. This comes after more than a decade of campaigns to protect the Nu River and is the first step in the road ahead to preserve one of the last free-flowing transnational rivers in Asia. This recent announcement provides a glimmer of hope for the Salween, the river’s Burmese portion; protecting the Salween could help sustain the country’s fragile peace. 

This is an unprecedented string of victories, and the good news doesn’t stop there. Major financiers are also reconsidering their support for hydropower. The World Bank, which led the quest for large dams only three years ago, sharply pivoted towards solar power in 2015. The Brazilian development bank BNDES recently announced a shift from gas and hydropower towards wind and solar power. 

The conditions are ripe for a fundamental shift because the way we produce energy is changing.  While wind and solar power are booming, newly installed hydropower capacity dropped from 38 to 22 gigawatt between 2013 and 2015. Globally, financiers invested 12 dollars in wind and solar projects for every dollar they put into large hydropower last year.

These victories don’t just give me hope – they energize me, and they should energize our movement. The wind is at our backs. We have the chance to truly transform the way governments, financiers and dam builders think about freshwater, human rights and energy development. 

We can and must seize this opportunity, with the help of a vibrant global community of people standing up for their rivers from the Amazon to the Mekong, from the Congo to Patagonia and Standing Rock.  

When I meet with river guardians around the world, I am inspired.  I know how hard we are all fighting to make sure their rivers stay clean and free-flowing.  I know how hard we are all fighting for our food, fish, and communities.

We have an opportunity to protect the world’s critical freshwater ecosystems for future generations. Let’s seize it!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016