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Interview: James Dalton, Global Initiative Coordinator, IUCN

James Dalton is the coordinator of global initiatives for the IUCN Water Programme. In this interview, he spoke to us about the importance of considering sustainability despite the pressures to address urgent development needs. He will speak in a session on this subject at the forecoming World Hydropower Congress in Beijing.

James DaltonWhen we need to address an urgent development need, why is it still important to apply sustainability practices?

It is quite simple really; sustainability practices, when applied from the outset, help to ensure the continual maintenance of a project, thus ensuring its functionality and effectiveness in the future.

Obviously, the sustainability of electricity supplies is important, because upon it rests the stability of economies; however, the other services resulting from dams and reservoirs also benefit local people. Without considering sustainability, such benefits will be short-lived, and you are therefore doing a disservice to future generations.

The importance of considering sustainability becomes apparent when you consider the number of long-term dams in existence. Even dams that are 70–100 years old are still deemed necessary, which demonstrates the importance of developing hydropower projects that overcome the test of time.

The continued use of some of these older dams is only possible because sustainability thinking (and possibly some sheer luck) occurred from the outset; however, this was not always done in the best possible way. Moving forward, the implementation of sustainability criteria will need to be improved, and this does seem to be the direction in which the industry is moving.

IUCN is supporting this trend by sharing the lessons learnt on dams, by promoting what has worked, and how innovative natural and built infrastructure approaches can benefit new development plans.

What are the most common disagreements between different stakeholders on how sustainability should be addressed?

One of the most complex sustainability issues discussed by stakeholders is the impact that hydropower has on river systems and flows, and consequently the people and species that inhabit them, as well as the downstream services provided by rivers, for example groundwater recharge during flooding.

It is not only issues surrounding the health of the river flow that are discussed by stakeholders; social issues such as human displacement are also of concern. One of the issues surrounding human displacement is striking the balance between the benefit gained from implementing a hydropower project, and the negative ramifications such as loss of livelihoods and social disruption.

The negative impact dams can have on local communities has resulted in opposition from some countries to hydropower projects. However, countries are often more amenable to hydropower projects if there is the promise of surplus electricity which can be sold to other countries, generating financial rewards, and if consequences for people and species are minimised, ensuring sustainability and longevity of the project.

This in turn can lead to further discussions concerning the best way in which to distribute the profits; should it go back into local communities, or should it go into a national basket for redistribution in a way that compensates those who are suffering from the more negative impacts of the dam?  

Have you ever met anyone who says that you should build first and worry about sustainability later?

I have never met anyone like that. I am always surprised that within the hydropower industry sustainability is always firmly on people’s agenda; however, I do feel that there are different levels of understanding surrounding what sustainability means.

I have been in some meetings where there has been an obvious disparity regarding what sustainability refers to. On the one hand you have the view that sustainability is about the continual functionality and safety of the dam in the future.

Conversely, you have the view that sustainability should be concerned with building infrastructure in river systems, using best practice, to ensure that the impact on eco-systems will be as unobtrusive as possible.

Are there any particular examples you could highlight where a good balance has been found?

If I think back to the first few IHA congresses, it is clear how far the industry has developed in regards to its readiness to engage in discussions relating to sustainability, and its willingness to consider issues on both sides.

I have watched the industry transform and become much more open to discussion on sustainability, and I think the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol has been central to this change."

I have watched the industry transform and become much more open to discussion on sustainability, and I think the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol has been central to this change.

It has helped to create understanding of issues relating to sustainability, and has voiced them in a way that has created greater appreciation from communities interested in implementing hydropower projects.

Itaipu in Brazil provides a good example of a project where sustainability was a consideration from the outset. There were various problems associated with the project; however, these issues were taken into consideration during development. Of course, even then not everything was done perfectly; however, given the information available at the time, the complexity of the infrastructure, the political requirements of building such a dam in that location – Itaipu now provides a lot of experience to others based on lessons they have learned.  

What do you hope will be the outcome of the session covering this topic at the congress this year?

I hope that the session will offer a better understanding, from multiple sides, of issues relating to sustainability. On the one hand I hope people will see that for development there is the need to build strong economies, and for that you need electricity, and that part of your portfolio to provide that electricity will include hydropower.  Of the 195 countries in the world, about 150 of them have hydropower – so it’s not new, but it is a technology that needs discussion and debate to help make it work better for everyone, including the environment.

I hope that the message from the congress highlights the importance of developing hydropower projects well, using the different resources, guidelines, and learning that is already available.

Obstacles facing those who wish to implement best practice include a lack of understanding of the guidelines and the often belated identification of potential issues until later in the development process.

I hope that the congress draws attention to these reasons for why sustainable practices are not always adopted, and will address the negative outcomes of not implementing good practice. What needs to be recognised is that at the core of sustainability is risk management; risk management for the governments, the investors, the builders and owners, and those locally affected, including the environment.

These bodies need to ensure they are contributing to, and supporting, a project that creates sustainable national or regional development, rather than something which is eroding elements of what the country has already achieved.

James Dalton will speak at the forthcoming World Hydropower Congress in a session on Development vs sustainability: how can we find the right balance? Find out more here.