Blog: Learning the language of sustainable hydropower

IHA's Sustainability Specialist Alain Kilajian writes about working to promote sustainability in hydropower development.

The sun is shining. Birds are singing. Insects are going about their daily business, as insects do. This is the scene I find myself in, less than a kilometre upstream of a 60 MW dam tucked away between the lush mountains of a tropical jungle. The dam is under construction and I am standing in the middle of what, in less than two years, will be a reservoir. There will be no more singing. No more aphidian entrepreneurs. Their habitats forever submerged.

It’s a strange feeling. Being an environmentalist, I’d even say it feels quite sad at times as you observe death and rebirth across an ecological system. But, in just a few months (not even a speck in geological time), a new ecosystem will emerge with a whole new world of aquatic life and trophic activity. The reservoir, beyond being the home of a mosaic of new species, will also be the source of clean water and reliable energy supplied to surrounding communities and urban centres.

Hydropower development, as with any major infrastructure development, will inevitably bring change to an area. The challenge is how to make sure that change is responsibly managed and sustainable.

Stopping unsustainable development

I joined the International Hydropower Association (IHA) in March 2019 with the aim to promote sustainability in hydropower development. Previously I worked as an environmental scientist on numerous freshwater and infrastructure projects around the world. I often worked directly with affected communities where I was able to see the dark side of development: the pollution, the contamination, the loss of ecosystems, the destruction of habitats, and all the health implications for humans and other living species. In response, I helped build roadblocks to stop companies from accessing construction sites, collaborated with lawyers to ensure human rights were being respected, and partnered with governments to drive systemic change. So, when I joined IHA, it was to help put a stop to unsustainable infrastructure projects.

IHA’s mission is to advance sustainable hydropower. Sustainability, or sustainable development, is a term thrown around more than a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian former Prime Minister and chair of the influential Brundtland Commission on sustainable development, helped coin a workable definition. Writing in 1987, she and her colleagues noted that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Over 30 years later, future generations are getting older and more demanding. Words can only go so far. As youth activist Greta Thunberg would say, you must take action.

Over the last two decades, the hydropower sector has taken action. The sector’s journey towards sustainable development saw its pivotal moment in 2000, when the World Commission on Dams published its report highlighting the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of dams. Thorough and instructive, the report painted an honest picture of the sector at the time, but it did not clearly set out a framework or roadmap for achieving sustainability in hydropower.

Embracing the complex nature of the task, IHA and its partners picked up the baton and set sail on the journey towards sustainable hydropower development. Civil society groups, environmental and social NGOs, governments, international financial institutions and the hydropower sector came together to draft a set of guidelines and assessment tools to define sustainable hydropower.

Tools for sustainability

Today, after two decades of multi-stakeholder consultation and governance, the hydropower sector now has access to a suite of Hydropower Sustainability Tools. These tools have taken sustainability principles and adapted them into a usable and internationally recognised framework for building and assessing new and existing hydropower projects. Defining what good and best practice look like, these tools can be used to assess projects of all sizes, at any stage of their life cycle.

The Hydropower Sustainability Tools comprise a set of guidelines on what constitutes good international industry practice, plus two complementary measurement tools: an assessment protocol and a gap analysis tool.

Whereas the Hydropower Sustainability Guidelines on Good International Industry Practice (HGIIP) defines the processes and outcomes that constitute good practice, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) measures actual performance looking at both basic good practice and proven best practice, enabling projects to benchmark their performance in a comprehensive way across up to 26 topics. The Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool (HESG) looks at a more focused set of 12 environmental, social and governance assessment topics and is used to check for gaps against good practice, with an action plan to help project teams improve performance.

A common language

Together, this suite of tools provides a common language to allow industry, governments, civil society and financial institutions to discuss and address sustainability issues.

This was the language I was speaking as I walked through the tropical forest soon to be transformed into a reservoir, and the HSAP was the tool I carried to decipher the project’s sustainability.

For five days, I shadowed a team of three accredited assessors as they gathered data on the project. Their assessment extended far beyond the limits of the project site. We covered two urban centres and visited over five municipalities. The scope was established long before our planes landed. We had interviews set up with government officials, bank representatives, community members and project staff. All stakeholders, both directly and indirectly affected by the project, were considered in the assessment programme.

We travelled upstream to communities to understand the impact of the company’s benefit sharing strategies. We photographed newly-built schools and health centres, as well as run-down roads and derelict houses. We went to visit downstream communities where we found out more about the project’s communication and consultation strategy. We listened and observed, noted and considered. We covered topics from infrastructure safety and hydrology to cultural heritage and resettlement, all based on the requirements defined in the HSAP.

I photographed nurseries with new trees that will be planted to compensate for the biodiversity loss associated to the reservoir filling. The soil around theirs roots was filled with insects and other micro-organisms soon to be relocated to their new home.

We viewed the penstock and conduction tunnel with the civil engineers, saw the sediment traps and bioretention tanks with the environmental manager, and visited the campsites with the health and safety officer. We questioned. They answered. A couple of weeks after the visit, I received the first draft of the assessment report to review. With over 150 pages of analysis on 18 sustainability topics, the report painted an honest and thorough picture of the project being assessed. It highlighted both its shortcomings and its strengths, and identified significant gaps against international good and best practice. Such an assessment not only gives owners, operators and contractors a fair assessment of where a project stands, it also gives vital reassurance to investors, regulators and local communities that their confidence in the project is not misplaced.

This is what a sustainability framework looks like in practice – comprehensive, systematic and reproducible. The HSAP, in both its approach and assessment process, provides the necessary structure to ensure consistency across results, as well as the needed flexibility to appreciate the variations between different regional contexts.

Sustainability is complex, but we should not shy away from the Brundtlandian ideal of sustainable development. IHA has not shied away. We have helped to develop and promote a set of tools that can be used to assess and improve the sustainability of all hydropower projects. This is our common language. Let’s learn to speak it.

About the author  

Alain joined IHA in March 2019. He works on developing and implementing a suite of sustainability tools which provide guidance to the hydropower sector as well as a means for assessing a project’s performance. Alain also takes a supporting role in delivering training and managing capacity building projects to drive sustainable hydropower development worldwide, especially in francophone countries.

He has experience working as an environmental scientist on multiple international projects, including analysing the environmental and social impacts of mining on agricultural communities in Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar and developing regional nutrient reduction strategies in the Mississippi River Basin with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Alain holds an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development from the University of Cambridge and a BA in Earth and Environmental Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania.

This article was originally published in International Water Power & Dam Construction.

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