International Water Power & Dam Construction magazine, an IHA member, has recently launched a series on influential women in hydropower. In the first of a series of articles, IWP&DC spoke with Aida Khalil, sustainability specialist at the International Hydropower Association.
Could you briefly explain your current role at IHA, and any previous experience in the hydropower industry?
I have worked as a sustainability specialist at IHA in London since 2012. In my role, I contribute to the core mission of IHA: advancing sustainable hydropower.
I play a key role in developing, advancing and implementing the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol; a tool supported by a number of stakeholders around the world (including businesses, governments, NGOs, banks) that is used to measure and guide sustainability performance in the sector.
My role involves delivering training workshops to understand sustainability and how to use the protocol. I also lead assessments of hydropower projects and report to partners and donors.
I previously worked as an environmental consultant in the field of Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), environmental due diligence, and supervision of environmental management issues on construction sites for different types of infrastructure and energy projects.
What initially inspired you to focus on a career in this sector?
My interest in the sector came from the opportunity to address challenges in hydropower development that cause a negative public perception of the sector if those are not managed adequately.
Key challenges include, amongst others, barriers to fish migration, dam safety, management of sediment loads, resettlement and downstream flows. These challenges can be overcome by implementing internationally recognised best practices from the early stage of project conception.
We should not forget that hydropower schemes can also offer a number of benefits, such as poverty reduction through opportunities for local development. My role gives me the opportunity to guide decision-making, and make this happen with the best possible outcome for all involved.
Hydropower schemes can be developed as a vehicle for local economic development, ensuring that affected communities benefit from the project."
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
As an accredited assessor, I contribute to assessments of projects located in different regions of the world, which entails extensive travelling.Assessments involve reviewing a large amount of information in a short period of time to base our findings on objective evidence; this requires high attention to detail and analytical thinking.
Assessments also involve interviewing project-related stakeholders, which requires quick thinking and good interview management skills in a professional and culturally appropriate manner.
It is very rewarding to see companies reacting and changing their practices as a result of an assessment.
What do you think are the major challenges the industry will face over the coming years? And the opportunities?
Key challenges of hydropower development are related to: risks of poor environmental and social issues management, particularly in regions with high hydropower potential and increasing development of large dams; poor integrated planning at river basin scale; and addressing the needs of all affected stakeholders to avoid social opposition to projects.
Opportunities to sustainable hydropower development reside in building the right dams at the right places through good planning since conceptual studies, taking into account international best practices like the protocol.
Salary surveys indicate that there is still a salary gap between men and women in the engineering sector."
Hydropower schemes can be developed as a vehicle for local economic development, ensuring that affected communities benefit from the project.
Hydropower also provides opportunities to address water security challenges and support other renewable energies.
The industry is seen as being very male dominated – what has been your experience as a woman in such an integral role?
In my experience working with different hydropower developers and/or operators, men, especially in less developed countries, occupy most of the high management positions. Planning events with a gender balance in participation can be challenging.
Are you seeing more women become involved in hydropower?
I have seen more women involved in particular areas related to hydropower, such as environmental, social and sustainability managers. These job areas usually attract more women than engineering-based jobs.
But I have also seen good examples of hydropower developers, even in less developed countries, that can make a difference in the sector integrating gender equality in their corporate policies and promoting women’s professional development from engineering trainee levels.
Why do you think there is such a small percentage of women in the industry?
Hydropower-related roles usually require a background in the areas of engineering, hydraulics and energy systems. Unfortunately, degrees in those areas usually attract more men than women, and salary surveys indicate that there is still a salary gap between men and women in the engineering sector.
Construction of hydropower schemes requires specialists to spend long periods of time at project sites and that could represent a barrier for women with children.
How do you think we could attract more women to join the sector?
I can think of three key points:
- Promote the variety of roles that women can pursue within the sector (there are other options beyond designing and operating a plant).
- Promote partnerships between hydropower companies and universities or technical schools and mentoring schemes guided by other women working in the sector.
- Promote gender equality practices in the sector, e.g. parenting leave time.
What advice would you give to young women interested in engineering and the hydropower sector as a career choice?
I would say, go for it, it is an exciting sector that offers great career progression opportunities.
I would advise researching into different existing roles, and talk to other women working in various roles to understand the challenges and opportunities, and what would suit you better.
Women can bring different ideas and skills in the workplace, and make a difference in a male dominated environment.
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