Protecting River Health In The Face Of Power Sector Transformations

PARIS, France

On the eve of the World Hydropower Congress in Paris, WWF and The Nature Conservancy have launched an assessment of how the renewable energy revolution can solve the world’s climate and energy challenge without further sacrificing free-flowing rivers.

Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people details existing power sector transformations and emphasizes new opportunities to achieve sustainable power systems.

Significant positive changes in the costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies, coupled with advances in energy efficiency and grid management, will make it possible to provide electricity to the billion people who currently lack access. Use of these renewable energy sources will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve “tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometers of free-flowing rivers.

“We can not only envision a future where electricity systems are accessible, affordable and powering economies with a mix of renewable energy, we can now build that future,” said Jeff Opperman, WWF Freshwater Scientist and lead author on the report. “By accelerating the renewable energy revolution, we can secure a brighter future for people and nature with power systems that are low carbon, low cost and low impact.”

There are multiple benefits to accelerating the renewable revolution. Nearly 165,000 km of river channels would be prevented from being fragmented and thereby would help to limit the rise in global temperatures. In addition, use of renewables would help slow the catastrophic decline in freshwater species populations, which have fallen by 83% since 1970.

Mark Lambrides, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Energy and Infrastructure said: “A key recommendation of last week’s landmark global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services was for governments to protect and restore river connectivity. Here we show how, for the first time, the renewable energy revolution offers an opportunity to plan for the right mix of renewable sources in power systems, while avoiding fragmenting rivers, potentially displacing communities and contributing to the loss of freshwater fisheries that feed millions.”

Healthy free-flowing rivers deliver a number of critical ecosystem services. They support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, and prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion.

While the renewable revolution will not signal an end to hydropower development, it does herald a significant reduction in new dams and a shift towards low-impact projects, which support the expansion of solar and wind – such as retrofitting existing hydropower dams, adding turbines to non-powered dams, and off channel pumped storage.

The report calls for governments to create competitive frameworks to accelerate the renewable revolution while, at the same time, to reassess their existing hydropower plans. The full value of rivers, including the ecosystem services they provide, should be factored into considering lower impact alternatives. Meanwhile developers and financiers should support more comprehensive planning to develop a pipeline of lower-risk projects.