Described as a breakthrough in sustainable hydropower development the Rapid Basin-wide Hydropower Sustainable Development Tool (RSAT) was launched in January 2011. A joint initiative between the Asian Development Bank, mekong-river-commission (MRC) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this innovative new assessment tool helps identify, in as little as a week, the most sustainable sites, designs and operation rules for hydropower development in the lower Mekong river basin.

“This is a breakthrough in sustainable hydropower development because it allows for hydropower projects to be assessed within the basin-wide context, rather than on a case-by-case basis,” says Marc Goichot, senior infrastructure advisor for the WWF’s Greater Mekong programme. “The sustainability of hydropower projects cannot be assessed in isolation from one another. Their cumulative impacts need to be considered and this is the only way to ensure the ecosystems and the services they provide are conserved.”

Currently, there are over 100 hydropower projects proposed for the lower Mekong river basin that encompasses parts of Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The tool is to be used by stakeholders such as government agencies and regulators, river basin organisations, developers, financial institutions and civil society groups. It also utilises existing social, environmental, cultural, economic and financial information on a river basin to make the rapid assessment.

“Sustainable hydropower requires that decisions about its development and management are placed in a river basin perspective. This involves a shift in thinking about water infrastructure as a wider development intervention, with more attention to the overall development effectiveness of projects beyond viewing infrastructure narrowly as a way to meet growing needs for water and energy services. In the long term this will also lead to local and national economic benefits,” explains Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat, the intergovernmental organisation working on sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin.

The RSAT is designed to enhance existing tools and processes, such as environmental impact assessments and management plans, not to replace them. It works by bringing together different sectors and institutions and seeks integrated basin-wide planning and cooperation.

Hydropower sustainability is complex. It does not depend on the performance of one responsible group (eg industry or government) but on the capacity, performance, interaction and collaboration of a range of key players each with different roles. Therefore, multiple aspects of hydropower development, institutional arrangements and basin-wide planning are the subject of the assessment tool. The key players for the purpose of the assessment are:

• Hydropower developers and operators.

• National government agencies.

• River basin organisations (basin and sub-basin).

• Project affected communities and their representatives.

• Transboundary and regional institutions.

• Potential funding agencies, such as multilateral development banks.

The assessment tool focuses attention on the key players’ different roles, functions and capacity as well as their level of collaboration with each other to achieve the shared objective of sustainable hydropower.

“Cumulative impact assessments are complex and time consuming to undertake and often difficult for all interested stakeholders to grasp the complete picture of the technical, environmental, social and economic issues in play. The RSAT enables the knowledge of many stakeholders to be captured so that hydropower investments do bring the positive outcomes needed by society to ensure everyone benefits. The RSAT tools help identify and communicate key actions to ensure these benefits are sustainable,” says Ian W Makin, senior water resources specialist at the Asian Development Bank.

Specifically the assessment tool is designed for a desktop assessment and to focus attention on the sustainability of:

• A single hydropower project and its relationship to a sub-basin.

• Existing and proposed cascades of hydropower projects or multiple projects within a sub-basin.

• A sub-basin as a whole that has hydropower potential.

• Trans-boundary issues for basins shared by different countries, where hydropower is already developed or could be developed in the future.

This basin-wide assessment tool complements and builds on a similar project based tool developed by the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum which focuses on the planning, design and operation stages of individual projects. (RSAT differs from the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol as the former is not targeted specifically to the sub-basin or basin context.)

The primary aims of RSAT are:

• To provide a common basis for dialogue and collaboration on sustainable hydropower between key players. It can be used as a methodology to bring together different stakeholders to discuss hydropower sustainability and reach agreement on priorities for future studies and main risks and opportunities for hydropower development in a particular basin. The risk assessment process in the tool is designed as a dialogue process to assist collaboration on sustainable hydropower between the key players and hydropower stakeholders.

• To highlight and prioritise areas of hydropower sustainability risk and opportunity in a particular basin or sub-basin for further more detailed study. It will assist to identify gaps in data, information and policies needed to address sustainable hydropower development issues.

• To identify capacity building needs in the basin. It could be applied periodically (eg every three to five years) to show progress in sustainable hydropower development in a basin.

How does RSAT work?

The main function of the tool is to apply a risk assessment process against a scoring framework. The tool will be used by an assessment team who defines the scope and purpose of the assessment. Once these are determined, the assessment team will gather information and data for the assessment and identify key people to interview and potential sources of information required.

The inputs of the assessment are:

• Data and information collected to form the evidence for the assessment. This will include information on basin-wide data (eg hydrology, ecosystem studies, socio-economic studies).

• Hydropower development information and reports (eg environmental impact assessments, feasibility studies), regulatory framework for the basin (eg policies and legislation) and the trans-boundary situation and agreements for the basin.

• Key people that will be interviewed for the assessment.

• The topics, criteria, scoring statements and guidance notes that define basin-wide sustainable hydropower development.

• A risk assessment framework (strengths, weaknesses, risks and opportunities) that will guide the assessment.

All of these inputs are used to conduct a risk assessment, allocate scores (in some cases) and develop an assessment summary report. The report will contain a description of the status of the basin for sustainable hydropower; the key risks and opportunities for sustainable hydropower in the basin; a list of prioritised recommended actions for improving the level of hydropower sustainability in the basin; plus a score which rates the level of hydropower sustainability performance for the basin for each topic.

Who can conduct an assessment?

It is envisaged that the assessments could be conducted by a multi-stakeholder team in a facilitated workshop situation with available evidence at hand, or by a consultant group engaged by a national government agency or multilateral development bank. As hydropower sustainability requires the expertise of a range of disciplines, the assessment will require input from a number of people with appropriate expertise and/or local knowledge. An assessor/assessment team and the people they interview should represent the following sources of information:

• Local knowledge and development context for the basin/sub-basin.

• Social, environmental and economic expertise relevant to the basin being assessed.

• An understanding of the transboundary situation for shared basins.

• Engineering and technical expertise in hydropower and dams.

The assessment may or may not include scoring depending on why the assessment is being conducted. If the assessment requires scoring an independent verification of scores is required. The assessment team has to provide information on how the score was reached referring to the scoring statements and the evidence so that it can be independently verified. The person conducting the independent verification should be recognised as qualified to undertake this task.

The tool has been developed in the context of the Mekong river but is equally applicable elsewhere in the world. Financial support for the initiative has been provided by the governments of Germany and Finland and the USAID.

Development of RSAT

The Rapid Basin-wide Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Tool (RSAT) was the result of several years of planning, preparation and stakeholder engagement in the Mekong region. The initial exchange of ideas gave rise to the notion of a basin-wide hydropower sustainability assessment tool and date back to 2001. This later evolved into a partnership initiative known as the Environmental Considerations for Sustainable Hydropower Development (ECSHD), formed in 2006 by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
This version of RSAT is the outcome of collaboration between the ECSHD partners and the Environmental Cooperation-Asia (ECO-Asia) project of the United States Agency for International Development, which contracted with Hydro Tasmania Consulting to help prepare RSAT for implementation in the Mekong river basin.
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