New day for energy: we can meet climate and energy goals without damming world’s remaining free flowing rivers

By Pavan Sukhdev, President WWF International

Solar panels in India © Global warming images / WWF

In Roraima, northern Brazil, a proposed hydropower plant would flood more than 500 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest. The planned Sambor dam in Cambodia would sever the Mekong river, putting the world’s largest freshwater fishery at risk. And in Indonesia, plans for a new hydropower scheme and the associated access roads spell disaster for the Batang Toru Ecosystem, threatening the last remaining Tapanuli orangutans.

These are just three examples of destructive hydropower projects that would fragment free flowing rivers, threatening species and risking the livelihoods of local people, who depend on healthy rivers for flood control, fish, water, sand to sustain the deltas beneath their feet, and nutrient-rich sediments for their fields, as well as for cultural and spiritual sustenance.

In the past, countries accepted these impacts as the unavoidable trade-offs of generating energy to power economies and help mitigate climate change. But there is now an alternative. A new report from WWF and The Nature Conservancy finds that, for the first time, the world’s urgent need for extra energy can be met without fuelling climate change or devastating more rivers and freshwater ecosystems.

Planned Sambor dam would have huge impact on the Mekong river © Adam Oswell / WWF-Greater Mekong

Since the middle of the last century, large-scale hydro projects have been central to the electrification plans of countries around the world. They have promised low-cost electricity, at scale, and have been considered vital for investing and stimulating economic development in emerging economies. But now with the rapidly falling costs of other renewable options, particularly wind and grid-scale solar, I am reminded of a quote by Henry Ford, one of the driving forces in the early days of the car: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This feels like the current situation with hydropower.

However, notwithstanding better renewable alternatives that are not prone to the chronic delays, social resistance and huge cost over-runs typical of large hydropower dams, governments are still pressing ahead with plans for new hydropower projects, with more than 3,700 currently under consideration. Many of these loom over the world’s remaining free flowing rivers and would have serious social and environmental consequences if they were given the green light. It is so true that “old habits die hard”.

At risk are the diverse values of healthy rivers such as freshwater fisheries, which supply over 12 million tonnes of low-cost protein each year — much of which comes from fish whose migratory routes would be blocked by new dams. At risk too is sediment delivery, which provides vital nutrients to some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, and ensures that deltas — home to hundreds of millions of people, major economies and rich biodiversity — can stay above the rising seas.

High impact hydropower threatens freshwater fisheries © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom / WWF-Greater Mekong

The need to supply power to the billion people around the developing world that currently lack access to it is unquestionable, but the best means for doing so are no longer mega impact hydropower projects. Dramatic recent drops in the cost of the wind and grid-scale solar power and storage technologies — as well as advances grid management — mean that all governments can now opt for low carbon, low cost and low impact grids.

The technical potential of low-impact wind and solar projects, using degraded or agricultural land and rooftops, is 17 times greater than the renewable energy targets set by nations through their Paris climate pledges. That potential is broadly distributed, allowing almost all countries to meet their need for power while at the same time limiting the environmental and social impacts involved. Indeed, our report shows that, if countries accelerate the renewable revolution, they could reduce the fragmentation of rivers by nearly 90%, protecting as much as 165,000 kilometres of waterways.

Solar and wind can be sited on agricultural land © Dave Lauridsen

This is not to say there is no role for hydropower. Low-impact hydropower can provide important grid-balancing services to support the massive expansion of solar and wind. Considerable opportunities exist to rehabilitate and retrofit existing hydropower dams, re-operate dams and cascades, and add turbines to non-powered dams as well as off-channel pumped storage.

Governments need to undertake system-scale planning to identify and develop integrated power systems that are low cost, low carbon and low impact. They should reassess hydropower plans by factoring in the full value of rivers and considering the availability of low impact renewable alternatives. But it’s not just up to governments. The private sector and financial institutions also have key roles to play in accelerating this transformation in the way we power our lives.

The renewable revolution promises a brighter future for rivers, climate and humanity and will be a critical component of a New Deal For Nature and People in 2020. But as developers rush for the last big pay days from high impact hydropower projects — from mega dams on tropical rivers to smaller dams across the Balkans — we need to rapidly seize the opportunity to accelerate the renewable revolution. Only in this way can we avoid unnecessary and destructive hydropower dams from being built on rivers such as the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Amazon — and hundreds of others around the world.

It is clear that the era of high-impact hydropower is coming to an end. It would be a tragedy if the full social and environmental benefits of the renewable revolution arrive just a few years too late to safeguard the world’s great rivers and the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature. We have the opportunity and knowledge to address climate breakdown while protecting ecosystems and livelihoods, if we act quickly to protect the world’s vital river systems.

Plans are afoot to build a hydropower dam on the Luangwa river in Zambia © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US