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OOSKAnews Voices: Transforming our Approach to Hydropower is Critical for Rivers, Businesses and the Planet

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest "opinion columns" written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community.  The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.
In this article, Dr. Jeff Opperman, Science Lead of the Global Freshwater Practice of WWF International presents the business case for a transformation in our planet's approach to hydropower. 

Hydropower has triggered intense discussion and conflict for decades. While debates over individual dams carry great weight for local rivers and communities, they are also the most visible flash points of an even larger underlying global challenge: how can the world provide sufficient electricity to support stable, prosperous societies – including delivering electricity to the one billion people who currently lack access – and do so through energy systems that neither push the climate past safe boundaries nor degrade the natural values of the planet whose climate we seek to maintain?

In short, the world needs to more than double electricity supply by 2050, generated by low-carbon energy systems that do not degrade land and river ecosystems and the values they provide. This is no small task.

<--break->Many countries will look to hydropower. While it is true that some hydropower reservoirs have high emissions of greenhouse gases (particularly shallow reservoirs in the tropics), globally, hydropower is by far the largest source of low-carbon electricity. Even with the anticipated – and urgently needed – massive increases in solar and wind generation, most global projections include a major role for hydropower within the future renewable energy mix. But without careful planning and implementation, the expansion of hydropower poses serious risks to people and nature.

<--break->By inundating valleys, blocking rivers and changing flows, hydropower can displace communities and damage river ecosystems that provide food and livelihoods to hundreds of millions of people. These impacts tend to fall disproportionately on low-income, rural communities and indigenous groups. A dramatic expansion of hydropower risks helping to solve the climate crisis at the cost of many of the world’s rivers and what makes them unique and so culturally, socially and economically valuable to so many people.

To successfully navigate through the dilemmas of the energy-climate-nature challenge will require new approaches to hydropower – and energy more broadly. In a report launched this week at the World Hydropower Congress – The Power of Rivers: a business case – I and colleagues at The Nature Conservancy and several partners argue that shifting hydropower planning and management to the system scale must be the foundation of any new approach.

Energy development and generation will always have some negative impacts. Tradeoffs are unavoidable. However, in The Power of Rivers, we demonstrate that many impacts can be avoided or reduced and that tradeoffs can be eased. Importantly, the report also shows that this direction makes economic sense for countries and provides financial value to dam developers.

These better outcomes arise by shifting the scale of hydropower planning and management – decisions about which projects get built and how they are operated – away from single dams and towards the system scale, such as river basins, grids, countries or regions – an approach called Hydropower by Design (HbD).

In an earlier report, we showed that global application of HbD could result in 100,000km more free-flowing rivers for the level of development projected for 2050, but only if there is broad uptake within the hydropower sector. Catalyzing widespread adoption will require that diverse decision makers see value beyond just environmental gains. And this is what The Power of Rivers is designed to do – drawing on a series of quantitative case studies to demonstrate to governments, developers and funders that HbD can provide value to them.

For governments and development organizations, the report demonstrates that HbD can deliver a “better deal” for development in the form of improved economic performance across a range of sectors and resources. In river basins across the world, hydropower development and management will interact with water management services – including water supply, flood-risk management and irrigation storage – that have an aggregate estimated value of up to nearly US$800 billion per year. Hydropower that is planned and operated as part of a larger system has the potential to increase the benefits from these services. The report shows that implementation of HbD within river basins could result in improved performance in these other important economic values – ranging from 5 per cent to 50 per cent for the same or even greater electricity generation, relative to status quo development and operation.

These gains could often be achieved alongside large improvements in environmental performance, such as dramatic increases in the length of rivers accessible to migratory fish, ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of kilometers – critical since hydropower development will be concentrated in river basins that support the highest levels of riverine fish harvest and the highest diversity of freshwater fish species.

As promising as these results are, sustainable plans are unlikely to be implemented if they are composed of financially non-viable projects that can’t attract investment. But as a case study on the Magdalena River basin in Colombia demonstrates, through HbD, a strategic and sustainable system could be composed of individual projects with improved financial performance compared to current approaches based on two significant sources of value – system-scale engineering efficiencies and improved risk management.

Undoubtedly, system-scale approaches can move hydropower development and management toward more sustainable outcomes with broader benefits. Ultimately, however, the most comprehensive and balanced solutions for the climate, energy and nature may emerge from strategic planning across multiple energy sources at the scale of a grid – comparing how different mixes of renewables perform in term of both energy systems and ecosystems.

Indeed, a final case study on Malaysian Borneo shows how decentralized renewable sources, added to existing hydropower dams, could meet future electricity demand at a lower investment cost than additional hydropower dams, with far lower impacts on forests, rivers and indigenous people. This type of integrated planning illustrates how and where hydropower can best contribute to low-carbon and sustainable energy systems, helping to meet that challenge of achieving a world with a stable climate, prosperous societies and healthy rivers.

Now, we just have to convince governments, funders and developers to make the shift – for their own and everyone else’s benefit.


Arsenic Linked Again to Cancer in India


Millions of people in Bihar, India, are showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning, which can be linked to cancer, due to consumption of contaminated drinking water. The symptoms arise after many years of exposure, say experts. The state of Bihar, in eastern India, is one of the country’s most impoverished states.


Braga Emphasizes Adaptation, and is Confident about Water Priorities at COP23

Edinburgh, SCOTLAND

World Water Council President Benedito Braga believes that water and adaptation challenges will continue to grow in significance at global climate talks.

Speaking to OOSKAnews Publisher David Duncan in a video podcast interview this week, Braga expressed optimism that the 2017 UN Climate Conference will give increasing priority to adaptation to climate change, particularly adaptation to climate-related water challenges.

Conventions of Parties (COPs) are convened annually under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). COP21 was hosted in France in 2015, and saw the signing of the much heralded “Paris Agreement” on climate change.

The World Water Council is a co-founder of the Climate is Water alliance which was established in 2015. This international initiative is an effort to elevate the visibility of water within the UNFCCC climate change discussions “by reaching out to the climate community at every level for better consideration of water issues”. 

Braga was impressed by efforts to elevate this visibility in the lead-up and during 2016’s COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco:

“We, together with the French Government and the Moroccan Government, organized a mid-term meeting…and discussed how the Moroccan Government could bring the subject of water (to discussions about agriculture, energy, health and education. Particuarly relating to adaptation)”.

“Through this preparatory work, we organized a Water Day (at the Marrakech COP) on the 9th of November”.

“Since the beginning of negotiations around climate, the COPS, the emphasis has been around energy and mitigation measures. We say that water is central to adaptation…let us see how the governments are going to bring more to the discussions about adaptation. My feeling is that water has come to stay in these discussions”.

Braga believes that the “water momentum” can be maintained at COP23, which will be hosted in Bonn Germany this year, under the national presidency of Fiji.

“Island nations are very fragile and vulnerable to…severe weather…monsoons, typhoons, hurricanes in terms of excess water…but also climate change, changing rainfall patterns can bring severe drought and (problems particular to) small states”.

“I think Fiji understands the importance of adaptation, the importance of bringing policy around resilience to severe droughts and floods. My perception is that Fiji will very much like to continue this trend on water and adaptation playing a (greater) role in the next COP”.

President Braga also reflected on the World Water Council’s own process of triennial World Water Forums since this program commenced in 1997, and looked forward to 2018’s 8th World Water Forum which will be held in Brasilia, Brazil.

World Water Council President Braga’s interview can be viewed here.


Most Habitable Planets may be Completely Covered in Water


When you imagine what a rocky, habitable planet ;looks like, it's easy to picture an alternate Earth where land and oceans exist in an ideal balance. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily how it will pan out in real life... in fact, you might be surprised if there's land at all.

Tankers will Replenish Supply to Wild Animals

Dry water bodies in the Aravalli range in Gurgaon and Faridabad will be replenished through tankers this summer by the Haryana forest department to prevent wild animals from straying into human settlements in search of water. Many wild animals, including leopards, have been straying into human settlements to quench their thirst.

Nestle in Trouble for Piping from US National Forest


A little after 1 p.m. Sunday, a group of protesters dressed in bright colors and holding homemade signs, held hose posts for the rest of the afternoon, aiming to draw drivers’ attention to an effort to get Nestle Waters to stop piping water out of the San Bernardino National Forest.


Iraqi-American Doctor Who Revealed Flint Water Crisis Slams Trump at March for Science


Among those who spoke out at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on Saturday was Flint’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an Iraqi-American doctor who discovered the connection between rising blood lead levels in the children of Flint, Michigan, and the switch to the Flint River as a water source.


World Powers Question Trump's Paris Agreement Intentions


China, the UK, the European Union and Brazil have all filed questions at the United Nations about the United States’ policies on climate change amid international concern that Donald Trump will withdraw the US from the historic Paris Agreement.


Climate Change is Making Algal Blooms Worse


Researchers have long suggested that climate change could mean more damage from algal blooms — runaway growths of algae that can strangle marine ecosystems and devastate coastal economies. Now, a study has unpicked how warming ocean temperatures have already driven an intensification of blooms around North America — the first time this link has been established at an ocean scale.


Climate Change Causes Deadly Dehydration


Researchers in El Salvador predict the kidney is going to be one of the prime targets as heat increases and re-hydration is difficult. They currently classify the new form of chronic kidney disease as “climate-sensitive”, which means that climate is one ingredient contributing to the epidemic.


Thailand not Concerned about China Mekong Survey


Chinese officials are surveying the Thai section of the Mekong River in Chiang Rai province for a feasibility study but no decision has been made nor has any action been taken that should justify public concern in Thailand, according to the Thai government.


UN Touts Anti-Cholera Initiative in Haiti


Since 2010, the cholera epidemic in Haiti has directly affected 805,000 people and taken the lives of more than 9,480 [official figures as of 11 March 2017]. The UN-backed national and international efforts have led to a 90 per cent reduction in the number of suspected cases of cholera compared with the peak of the epidemic in 2011.

China's Environment Ministry finds Uneven Progress on Pollution


Efforts to tackle water pollution in China remain uneven with some areas worsening in 2016, while heavy metals and other pollutants continued to accumulate in Chinese soil, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said.


Wastewater Plants on Deadline for Improvement after Government Criticism


All Shanghai wastewater treatment plants are on a deadline to be upgraded, with an improvement program scheduled to start in September 2017, the Shanghai Daily reports).


Mayor Urged to Deliver on Water Promises


A city residents' group has demanded that Harare Mayor Bernard Manyanyeni immediately makes good on a pledge that the council stops charging fixed water tariffs to ratepayers who have not received supply from the council from before 2014. Manyenyeni told a council meeting last week that a resolution to this effect will be issued lateer in April.


US Offensive against Somali Militants Puts Humanitarian Efforts at Risk


United Nations and aid officials warn that a new US-backed military offensive against Islamist militants in Somalia could undermine the massive international effort to help millions of people threatened by the worst drought there in more than 40 years.


Water Streaming across Antarctica Surprises and Concerns Scientists


Researchers from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have found significant drainage of meltwater flowing across the continent’s ice sheets during summer in Antarctica. Until now, these streams of water were mainly associated only with Antarctica’s far north regions.

Southern White House is the Florida Key to Clean Water


Florida Governor Rick Scott met with US President Donald Trump this week to talk about what's needed to get rid of polluted water along the Florida coastlines. The governor has said there's now a plan in place to clean-up water from Lake Okeechobee.