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Can Healthy Rivers and Hydropower Co-exist?


Brian McPeek

President, The Nature Conservancy

March 2016

The Rio Curipí meets the Rio Uaçá on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, in the Oiapoque indigenous region of the Brazilian Amazon. Photo © Haroldo Palo, Jr.
The Rio Curipí meets the Rio Uaçá on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, in the Oiapoque indigenous region of the Brazilian Amazon. Photo © Haroldo Palo, Jr.

Experts predict that we will be 9 billion people sharing one planet by 2050. Where will we find enough energy to power our growing population?

Forward-thinking leaders looking for ways to balance economic growth and environmental protection are making major investments in low-carbon energy solutions like wind, solar and hydropower. Over the next 30 years, global hydropower capacity is predicted to double. This expansion of dams could impact more than 300,000 kilometers of rivers worldwide and many of the proposed dams overlap, almost perfectly, with some of the planet’s most naturally diverse places.

Ironically, our quest for clean energy represents one of the greatest threats to the rivers that feed our communities and support our economies.

At The Nature Conservancy, we believe we can find a balance between river conservation and energy production. We are sharing our science to influence how hydropower is developed in river basins all over the world. By working with decision-makers, such as hydropower companies and governments, we are demonstrating how shifts in policy and practice can allow us to meet our clean energy objectives and maintain healthy rivers.

In the Amazon, we have used scientific models to demonstrate how a range of different development scenarios could play out on the Tapajos River. We found several scenarios that could develop between 40-65% of the river’s total energy capacity for roughly similar costs. But the environmental impacts of those various scenarios vary widely: those that follow “Hydropower by Design”—our approach that considers the whole river basin when looking to reengineer old dams, remove or avoid others and better plan for those that will occur in the future—can maintain two to three thousand more kilometers of free-flowing river compared to business-as-usual approaches.

Finding balanced solutions in a world faced with tough choices is the crux of our global water strategy. Working in six important river basins slated for expanded hydropower development, we’re finding common ground and proving that industry, people and nature can benefit if we work together.

In places like Gabon’s Ogooué River, we’re working with the Gabonese government to develop a management plan that encompasses the entire river basin. By cataloguing, for the first time, the locations of the river’s important environmental resources in a national conservation atlas, we are charting a course for saving the Ogooué River’s unique ecosystems while harnessing enough of its power to fuel the country’s development.

Over the past several years, we have built a relationship with Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), a federal agency that is a leading planner and developer of electricity in Mexico. Together, we evaluated an initial set of 28 sites in the watershed where hydropower installations could potentially be developed. What we found is that there are scenarios where significant energy capacity development could be achieved while a good portion of river channels could remain connected and free-flowing.

"Approximately 100,000 more kilometers of river channels could remain connected compared to business-as-usual approaches."
- Brian McPeek

So this begs the question—what would happen if we were to apply this same thinking to river basins around the world? What is the global potential for Hydropower by Design?

To answer that question, Conservancy scientists published a report, The Power of Rivers, which quantifies that global potential. The report finds that if Hydropower by Design was commonly put into practice during the coming expansion of hydropower, approximately 100,000 more kilometers of river channels could remain connected compared to business-as-usual approaches.

That global potential, along with solutions from the Tapajos, the Ogooué and Mexico reached new audiences during the 2015 World Hydropower Congress in Beijing. The Conservancy took the bold step of co-sponsoring with WWF this major infrastructure conference because it provided an unequaled opportunity to share our solutions with the companies that will build more than half of the world’s new dams. This approach isn’t about enabling hydropower to happen, but rather finding ways to influence how hydropower happens to ensure that important rivers are conserved.

It is because of our experience testing these solutions on-the-ground in real, complex places and our global reach that we have a seat at the table and are in a position to share our balanced hydropower solutions with the same companies, governments and lending institutions that are driving the global hydropower agenda. And by finding and proving solutions that make good business sense, we are inspiring action well beyond the places we, as a single conservation organization, can touch.

Originally Posted on Conservancy Talk

March 01, 2016