It had been eight years since local activists working to protect the world’s rivers last convened, so the International River Gathering hosted by CEE BankWatch and International Rivers in Tbilisi in the last week of March served as an opportunity for many to reconnect, to share their struggles and to learn from the experiences of others. It was a vibrant, rousing affair, and I was fortunate enough to attend to try to learn more about how local organisations are working to protect river systems, particularly the strategies they employ and the actors and processes they engage with in their campaigns.
The key focus of the conference was on the development of hydropower dams, and the challenges that these infrastructure projects pose to river systems and the adjacent communities whose lives are so intricately connected to them. In the wake of an increasing understanding of the damage that fossil fuel combustion is doing to Planet Earth, countries have sought to identify ‘clean’ and ‘green’ alternatives, and many see hydropower as an answer to that call. This is no new technology, though. In fact hydro-dams have been around for more than a century, and whilst their greenhouse gas emissions are lower than those associated with fossil fuels (although certainly not zero), it is important to ask whether this is a truly ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ form of energy. Sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword, but its definitions are many and varied. If we imagine sustainability as simply a measure of the renewability of a resource, then hydropower broadly fits the bill, although in the context of climate change, water scarcity and increasing human modification of river systems, this is itself a subject of increasing debate. The real challenges however come when the definitions of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ move beyond this simplistic understanding of a resource’s renewability, and instead shift to understandings of the impact which a particular mode of development has on people and the environment.
Living Planet Report (WWF/ZSL, 2016)
Freshwater biodiversity has, as readers of the Living Planet Report will know, experienced a truly astonishing collapse: over the past 46 years, the abundance of freshwater species on Planet Earth has fallen by 81% (WWF, 2016). Whilst the drivers of this decline are complex and intersecting, the principal threat to freshwater ecosystems has been identified as the wave of dam developments which under current proposals will leave only 7% of the world’s river volume flowing in a natural state. Dam development leads to the diversion and containment of rivers which has served to fragment populations, restrict migration and change rivers’ hydrology, drastically altering many of the habitats to which freshwater species are adapted (Liermann et al., 2012). The removal of sediment at dam sites also affects downstream ecologies damaging critical life-stage habitats, and given the connectivity of freshwater systems to marine and forest landscapes, impacts are transposed to species beyond the river channel. Impacts on the environmental functioning of rivers clearly also translate into significant social costs; settlements are flooded, fisheries collapse, water sources dry up, livelihood options are constrained and cultural ties broken. For many of the conference’s attendees and the people they represent, these impacts were not merely hypothetical, but tangible realities. Under these conditions a dam’s construction does not so much resemble development as destruction. The message from participants of the river gathering in Tbilisi was clear – too often dams are anti-poor; economic, cultural, social and ecological costs are transposed onto adjacent communities whilst benefits are externalised to more powerful and distant actors.
Whilst we should be conscious that there is no energy utopia, increasingly there are renewable alternatives, and the social and environmental implications detailed above demonstrate that hydropower certainly has the potential to inflict significant costs on people and the planet which in turn undermine its credibility as a sustainable solution, and it seems at least logical therefore to properly consider proposals for its further development. Indeed one of the recurring themes of the river gathering in Tbilisi was the call from participants for a proper assessment procedure which gives local people a voice, and ensures their concerns and considerations play a key role in decision making over dam development – that the costs they face are internalised in the decision making process. Indeed when the potential implications are as drastic as those involved in dam construction projects, impact assessments need to be independent, scientifically informed, cumulative, transboundary, and perhaps most importantly of all participatory, rather than a mere box-ticking exercise. This makes sense for governments, for investors, for local communities, for people who care about the rivers. Furthermore impact assessments for hydropower should also be preceded by a strategic assessment of energy, food and water needs where alternatives are considered rather than locking in on one technology simply because of its invest-ability or grandeur. It may be that there are cases where hydropower development offers the best solution for local people, and has a small impact on the environment that can be mitigated against. Nevertheless, decisions need to be informed by data, rather than just the justification that as a ‘green’ form of energy we should throw money in its direction.
Development to protect the atmosphere should not occur at the expense of the hydrosphere, and it is surely intuitive that if we do proceed to alter 93% of natural hydrological flows, this will have some pretty drastic implications. Assessing hydropower projects on their merit and bringing information and experiences of the impacts of hydropower into advocacy, analyses, and decision-making will be critical to ensuring energy development does not come at the expense of the world’s river systems and the people who rely on them.