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Blog | Interview: William Rex, World Bank Group

Interview: William Rex, World Bank Group

The World Bank Group is an organising partner of the 2017 World Hydropower Congress, which will take place on 9 – 11 May in Addis Ababa. We spoke to William Rex, Global Lead for Hydropower and Dams at the World Bank, to find out why the group is supporting the congress and delve deeper into some of the key topics on the agenda.

William RexThe World Bank Group is an organising partner of the 2017 World Hydropower Congress in Addis Ababa – why is the World Bank Group engaging in this event?

Both the World Bank and the IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, are keen to support the congress because we see it as an important opportunity to help shape the global understanding of sustainable hydropower.

I hope one outcome of the congress is to see a clearer understanding across the global hydropower community of the issues and opportunities for developing sustainable hydropower in lower income countries, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Water security is a topic that will be high on the agenda at the congress – what role do you think hydropower can play in this issue?

Water security is a growing concern for countries across the world. Economic and population growth are driving a rising demand for water.  There are also concerns around increasingly variable rainfall and run-off, a trend which will be exacerbated by climate change over the long term.

Governments, especially in developing countries, need to increase their capacity for water storage, and dams are one important element of this. Thinking about the role of hydropower within water security is therefore important, in particular around multi-purpose dams. Irrigation, water supply, and flood protection provide critical societal or economic benefits that are much higher than their financial returns. 

That’s why it can be difficult for developing countries to finance multipurpose dams. But hydropower generates electricity which can then be sold. Therefore, we often see multipurpose projects becoming financially viable because of hydropower.

We will also be covering the topic of capacity building and skills shortages at the congress, and this is a particular challenge for developing countries – how do you think we can meet this challenge?

Broadly speaking, I would say that there are two types of capacity which are required in order to do sustainable hydropower well. One is the capacity to do the right projects and the other is the capacity to do projects right.

To do the right projects, you need a good policy framework and the capacity to do integrated upstream planning on energy and water. You need some technical capacity within governments to be able to look at a several potential portfolios of dams or hydropower projects and prioritize among them based on appropriate economic, environmental and social criteria. This is hydropower development at the strategic level.

To do the projects right, you need to look at budgets, training and skills across a whole range of technical fields, but I think at the end of the day, capacity is best built by doing things. Certainly, when we are financing dam projects, we are also trying to build capacity as part of that process, in parallel with the physical construction of the project.

How can we ensure that water infrastructure projects are resilient to climate change?

It’s important to have an awareness of how the changing climate may impact on a project. This is the fundamental starting point, but there will always be a measure of difficulty in trying to quantify and attach likelihoods to those different risks.

Globally, there’s a lot of work going on in this topic of decision making under uncertainty. This work is not unique to dams, although I think dams are a particularly complex example. Dams are fundamentally all about water flows, and shifting water flows is a key effect of climate change.

Dams are also highly capital intensive projects and typically have long pay-off periods. For investors it’s important that dams are resilient to climate change to make sure that the financial returns materialize. For societies at large it's even more important to make sure they can realise all the broader benefits of the project, which are key to justifying the potential downsides.

Stepping back, we need to think beyond isolated projects and look at a dam or hydropower station in the context of the river basin as a whole. Overall, the performance of any individual dam is going to depend greatly on how one approaches the overall watershed and the operation of any other dams in that basin.

What are the challenges that strategic basin planning presents when we are dealing with transboundary rivers?

On the physical side, the challenges are the same as strategic basin planning within a single country. There is a need to understand the whole river basin, its hydrology and so forth, in order to work out how to optimise a portfolio or cascade of dams, minimising the costs and maximising the benefits of each project.

At the transnational level, of course it is a lot more complex due to the political challenges. That is where putting in place some institutions, or cooperation mechanisms such as basin authorities complimented by regional power grids, becomes important.

We are currently working with the governments of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania on the 90 MW Rusumo Falls project, which is going well. There are other good examples across the Senegal, Niger and Zambezi basins. In fact, Africa is really leading the way in this area, and I think that’s partly because Africa is a continent that is dominated by transboundary river systems.

You can find out more about the 2017 World Hydropower Congress, including how to register your attendance, here.