Debating hydro’s sustainable future

Last week at the Yanqi Lake Complex near in Beijing in China, the 2015 World Hydropower Congress saw 1,000 of the hydropower sector’s most influential figures gather to discuss the future direction of the sector.

As Ken Adams, president of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) said in an opening address: “If we are to meet the challenges of a changing climate and global freshwater management, the contribution of hydropower and the multiple benefits it provides cannot be ignored.”

This comment may well suffice as the mission statement of the global hydropower industry, given its central position at the nexus of power and water, the two key ingredients for future development.

And it is of course in the developing world that the prospects for future hydropower development are most evident – as are the needs for that development opportunity. For example, during the Congress Dr Elham Ibrahim, African Union Commissioner for Energy and Infrastructure, explained the enormous challenges Africa faces in its energy sector – not least the fact that less than a third of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. And as a consequence about 80% of the population still depend on biomass energy for cooking, with very low efficiencies and serious impacts on health and life.

Africa's strategic Energy Vision aims to develop infrastructure to enhance access to modern energy services for the majority of the African population and this initiative aims to stimulate the addition of 10,000 MW of new hydropower plants by 2020.

The key to this development, as with any other kind of infrastructure, is access to finance and a central challenge has been to address environmental and social concerns associated with some, typically larger, hydropower developments. These concerns led to the withdrawal of sector support from a number of key institutional investors – a move which many would argue ultimately set Africa back on the road to economic development. For example, Mike Muller, commissioner of the National Planning Commission in South Africa, spoke about the challenges for developers in the region, particularly in the Zambezi river basin. He noted how development has been stalled by the diversion of funds away from hydropower, saying that “banning hydropower from global public funds to mitigate climate change is disgraceful”.

Achieving balance between conflicting demands is the perennial struggle for infrastructure developers right across the energy sector - and hydropower is no exception. What is exceptional is the potential contribution hydropower can make in changing the lives of millions of the world’s poorest individuals in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

And it is clear that the hydropower sector remains committed to an open discussion on how to address these challenges, as evidenced by Congress sessions such as that titled ‘Development vs Sustainability: How can we find the right balance?

One thing to emerge from the Congress is that there is no single, simple answer to the development question. What is clear is that the global hydropower sector continues to strive to do so in a responsible and sustainable manner.

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