Working for sustainable hydropower in Latin America

With a total hydropower capacity of about 140,000MW and bold plans for new deployment to drive economic growth, Latin America and the Caribbean are at the forefront of innovation and investment in the hydropower sector. Suzanne Pritchard investigates the diversity of experiences in the region, and bold initiatives that lead the way for sustainable hydropower development.

Sustainable hydropower in Latin America

When Gabriel Azevedo talks about Acreditar, the social programme established by Odebrecht Energia to train the local workforce, his face lights up: “Going the extra mile on sustainability has proved extremely beneficial at the end.”

Investing in the local workforce rather than calling upon skilled workers from other regions – the principle of Acreditar – was a bold idea when it was first introduced at the Santo Antonio project site on the Madeira river, in the north of Brazil.

The programme’s success has sparked interest among decision-makers and is now being rolled out across Latin America through other projects awarded to the construction company. “In many cases, looking at sustainability opens the door to win-win situations.”

The Director of Environment and Sustainability is keen to share his experience, and explore ways in which hydropower developers, operators and regulators faced with similar challenges can learn from each other.

He was one of the first on board when IHA organised its third regional forum in Rio last year, in cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the German agency for international cooperation (GIZ).

The forum brought together experts and decision-makers from the region to discuss challenges and solutions for hydropower development. The conversation was continued in Kuching in May, when participants from all continents joined the discussion at the IHA Congress.

In Rio, Roberto Vellutini, Vice President for Countries of the IDB, described the need to build a “joint regional vision towards sustainable hydropower”. The subsequent discussions revealed a pathway to achieve this goal: capacity building, in particular on sustainability and social engagement, both at the project and at the river-basin level.

Engaging financial institutions in dialogue is the ultimate challenge which has to be tackled for all projects"

Taking the example of the 165MW Amaila Falls project in Guyana, Vellutini expressed his enthusiasm. “Due to advances in stakeholder engagement and management approaches,” he said, “projects now can have genuinely positive social and environmental impacts, even protecting remote regions from unwanted forms of development.”

A key lesson is that working together with project-affected communities is as important as working with partners. Sometimes called the “social licence to operate”, achieving the support of local communities is not optional but a must for project development.

A look at the Dominican Republic demonstrates how local communities can become involved. Development of the 80MW Palomino hydropower project, which forms part of the country’s Clean Development Mechanism strategy, was designed through a participatory process with local communities.

“Hydropower is a critical part of our strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Omar Ramirez Tejada, Secretary of State and Executive Vice-President of the National Council for Climate Change in the Dominican Republic. “We have to get it right.”

Reaching out to villages affected by hydropower development is also something Valdineuza do Nascimento Borges is familiar with. The Executive Director of the Centre for Research on Traditional Populations in Porto Velho, Brazil, gives her perspective on social mobilisation.

“My organisation has a long history of working with riverine communities,” she explains. “During the feasibility and impact assessment stage of the Madeira hydro projects in Brazil we reached out to about 80 affected villages in culturally appropriate ways.

"We explained about hydropower and prepared them to participate meaningfully in the consultation process. It is important to give local people a voice in the project.”

Giving people a voice also means providing them with information. This is the rationale behind the work of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the Tapajós-Curua-Una Basin.

The project aims to give local stakeholders the opportunity to interact with both federal, state and municipal institutions. “It is possible, says Ana Cristina Barros, Brazilian representative of TNC, to balance conservation objectives with energy generation and provide sustainable infrastructure”.

Stakeholder engagement is also how concerns about damming the river at the 305 MW Reventazon project in Costa Rica were resolved. Mauricio Morales, coordinator for environmental management at ICE, the local utility, is certain that without the combined efforts of his company and the project financiers, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the IDB, negative impacts could not have been offset and mitigated.

Engaging financial institutions in dialogue is the ultimate challenge which has to be tackled for all projects: without any money there will be no hydropower scheme. “The lack of water infrastructure in developing countries can be attributed to a lack of interest from multilateral banks and the private sector,” Professor Benedito Braga, Vice President of the World Water Council, believes.

Embracing sustainable hydropower development can help to strike up interest. Financial institutions have to feel confident about projects. Ricardo Krauskopf Neto from Itaipu Binacional believes that monitoring corporate and social initiatives can help to inspire this.

His company, which operates the largest hydropower plant in Latin America, has embraced the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol as a tool for orientation and benchmarking corporate performance.

Such capacity building tools can help developers select and prepare better projects, ensure commitments are kept and that projects stay on track to deliver benefits. Furthermore, it can assist the hydropower sector in achieving and demonstrating consistent results across national boundaries. Many Latin American companies are already operating across borders and can only benefit from applying one sustainability system.

In addition, the Protocol is governed by a multi-stakeholder Council, which makes it a neutral, and more robust tool. Kirsten Nyman, Leader of the GIZ’s Policy Advice for Sustainable Hydropower explains how the German government is supporting the roll-out of the Protocol: “We are ensuring balanced governance of the Protocol,” Nyman ads, “with broad representation from developing country government agencies and civil society.”

The challenges facing hydropower development in Latin America are replicated across other regions worldwide, especially areas with significant and underdeveloped energy resources. As well as trying to attract investment, the social and environmental complexities of sustainable development must be resolved.

Exchanging experiences of how different organisations address challenges can improve the quality of all projects, beyond country borders on a region-wide scale. It is becoming a matter of common sense. Good practices need to be consolidated, continuously improved and spread worldwide. This is a task that IHA is keen to take on.

This article was originally published in Currents, IHA's magazine bringing together voices from across the hydropower sector.


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