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World Bank Puts Hydropower Back Into Favor, NGOs Do Not

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Nam Theun 2 before/after

Strong programs are emerging in Africa and South Asia, but greater focus is needed in Central Asia and Latin America, and in accelerating broad basin-level plans. These projects must be measured not only in terms of lending volumes but also in terms of sustainability and the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental value.

But Bast doesn’t believe that taking a triple bottom line approach to large scale hydro is possible. “Large hydropower has been shown not to deliver on any of the triple bottom line criteria,” she explains. “A true assessment of environmental, social, and economic benefits of large dams would likely turn up challenges on all fronts. Even the Bank itself makes a distinction between hydropower below 10 megawatts in its ‘new’ renewables calculations.”

Many NGOs remain concerned about the environmental and displacement repercussions of dams and large hydropower projects.

Curuá-Una Dam in Brazil, built in 1980, emitted 3.6 times more greenhouse gases than would have been emitted by generating the same amount of electricity from oil, Philip Fearnside writes in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. The trees and plants flooded by the reservoir rotted, releasing methane as water flowed through the turbines.

The World Bank acknowledges this is an issue, and perhaps a bigger one than is even currently understood:

First, where present, methane emissions from reservoirs must be investigated and embedded in project assessments and environmental management plans. While it is thought that emissions are likely associated with anoxic, shallow, tropical reservoirs (versus temperate or deep reservoirs), the science is still emerging and predicting and measuring emissions pose technical challenges.

Social Justice

And then there is the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s biggest hydro project. It was first envisioned in 1919, began construction in 1994, and by the time it is fully operational in 2011, will have a capacity of 22,500 MW and cost just under $30 billion.

According to International Rivers, the project “sets records for number of people displaced (more than 1.2 million), number of cities and towns flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 600 kilometers)”. It may offset the burning of 50 million tons of coal, but critics ask at what social and environmental price?

Even the UN Human Rights Division has concerns over dam projects. It released a report in May criticizing the Changuinola Aes dam construction for the Chan 75 hydroelectric plant in Bocas del Toro, Panama. James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, found that both the company and the government had violated the rights of the Ngobe Indians. In June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted the Ngobe's request for an injunction, suspending construction.

Not all dams draw opposition. Organizations like Friends of the Earth UK are supportive of small scale, community owned hydro, like the Torrs Hydro New Mills Ltd planned installation in Derbyshire. And Friends of the Earth Malaysia, Green Empowerment and the Borneo Project helped the community of Long Lawen in Sarawak Malaysia develop a micro hydro system after they were displaced by the development of the controversial Bakun Dam. But projects like these are not the scale or technology (Torrs will use an updated version of a 2,000-year-old Greek technology called the Archimedean Screw) that the World Bank is looking to support.

The World Bank Group is collaborating with members of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum (HSAF) which is trying to establish a widely accepted sustainability assessment tool based on the International Hydropower Association (IHA) Sustainability Assessment Protocol developed in 2006.

Organizations like International Rivers complain that

“HSAF is a self-selected group, and dam-affected people have no seat in it. The Forum started a belated consultation exercise in January 2009, half-way through the process. Even then, it did not ensure that affected people could effectively participate in the process.”

While the WBG report references the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which the Bank helped set up, it has not adopted their guidelines covering equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability, and accountability. The Bank acknowledges, however, that a number of NGOs would like it to do so.

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