In 2001 the international-commission-on-large-dams (icold) issued its final comments about the World Commission on Dams’ report. In fact, the goals of dam construction that ICOLD insist upon aim to achieve the maximum possible benefits by minimising negative effects on social, environmental and ecological aspects, including cultural relics, through the full and rational utilisation of natural resources. The different kinds of schemes have to be carefully and thoroughly studied and screened by current regulations in order to attain a harmonious co-existence of mankind and nature. This idea can be viewed in various ICOLD bulletins and publications, and is something which is not significantly different from the goals mentioned in the WCD report.

However, the WCD report overlooked the huge benefits and improvements made on society and the environment by dam construction. And in many aspects, the 26 guidelines proposed in the report for the planning and implementation of future dams, don’t fully take into account the special conditions and the specific development phase of different countries. They are somewhat too idealistic. Therefore, it is inappropriate to require all countries and all international banking organisations to follow the same guidelines.

Ten years later

Since the WCD report was published, ten years have gone by. We are in a changing world. Issues of common concern include dealing with an economic crisis, adapting to the impacts of climate change, poverty alleviation and the mitigation of environmental degradation. These remain challenges for us all. Out of these arise new requirements for dam and hydropower development.

ICOLD, throughout its 82-year history, has developed and evolved in alignment with the requirements of mankind. It now has a world reputation as the leading organisation in the field of dam engineering and water resources development. During the past century, ICOLD has been glad to see that large dams have made an important contribution to the sustainable development of water and energy resources.

Today, sustainable development and sustainability of the life in many parts of the world continue to be threatened by the scarcity of supplies of water, food and energy: 1.1B people are still lacking access to safe drinking water; 2.4B people are without the service of sanitation; and 2B people are waiting for electricity supply.

We need more water and energy on one the hand; we need blue sky and clean water on the other. Multi-purpose dams and reservoirs are vital for human development.

A consensus on the role of dams and reservoirs in sustainable development is being reached by the international community. The point has been highlighted many times such as in the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, the Beijing Declaration on Hydropower and Sustainable Development in 2004, the World Declaration on Dam and Hydropower for African Sustainable Development in 2008, and the Ministerial Declaration of the Fifth World Water Forum in 2009.

More and more people are recognising that water resources development is essential to achieve sustainable development. Insufficient water storage facilities will delay our ability to respond to global changes and to meet the Millennium Development Goals. In this context, a developing country has more urgent need for water storage facility development as the construction of water storage facilities is not only a crucial matter relating to economic development but also to survival and the alleviation of poverty.

Human development

The United Nations has defined the Human Development Index. It is a weighted average of the per capita GDP, health and education. It reflects quality of life and is an overall index used to measure the level of socioeconomic development in UN member countries. Once we compare and analyse per capita storage capacity index and the human development index (HDI), we can find out how dam/reservoir development is related to socioeconomic development. (See Figure 1).

The UN Human Development Report also pointed out that ‘the distribution of global water infrastructures is reversely proportional to the distribution of global water risks’. To a certain extent, water storage facility is usually an engine to drive socioeconomic development on one hand and a development cause on the other. With population growth and the acceleration of the urbanisation process, it is predicted that water demands will increase at the speed of 64Bm3/yr. Future estimates suggested that 47% of the total population on the globe will live in places with a desperate water shortage.

To ensure water security, we must build adequate water storage facilities. The view on accelerating water and hydropower development will almost certainly be widely accepted under the circumstances of severe challenges on water availability.

Good development

In the past, development and improving standards of living were previously the main drivers behind dam projects. In recent years hydropower has been firmly back on the agenda, as the focus has changed to global warming and rising fuel prices etc. This will help promote the positive image of good dam development. Water storage is energy storage. Hydropower often pays for water storage and plays an important role in modern power systems; currently accounting for approximately 20% of world electricity.

Many counties have increased investment in hydropower. To date, about 165 countries have already clarified to further develop their hydro potential. The proposed installed capacity already totals 33.8TW. In developed countries the focal point for hydropower development has already moved to rehabilitation, the reinforcement of constructed hydropower plants to strengthen flood relief facilities for increasing the capability of flood control, or adjusting its regulating target or mode for the purpose of ecosystem protection and restoration. This has been the case in countries in North America and Europe.

For the developing world, such as countries in Asia and South America, many countries stipulated ambitious plans for hydropower development by 2025. For the less developing country, such as in Africa, although they have abundant hydropower potential and the desire for hydropower development, there are limitations on investment, and technical or political aspects, which still act as barriers for developing hydropower.

At present, there are 1200 dams under the construction. Among them more than 370 dams are above 370m high. The majority are distributed in 55 countries in Asian and South American countries. In this regard, during ICOLD’s 78th Annual Meeting in Hanoi in 2010 we successfully organised the First Round Table Meeting on Dams and Hydropower for Sustainable Development in Africa. Government representatives, financial organisations, international contractors, media, and delegates from Africa joined the discussion for further action to help countries in Africa.

An Asian Declaration has also been drafted. Asia has great potential for hydropower but the percentage of hydropower generation to its economical potential is still lower with a ratio about 25%. To achieve a better development in the future, we intend to call for the international community to make a greater contribution towards dam and hydropower development in Asian countries.

Climate change

In addition, hydropower can demonstrate its value in lower energy consumption and GHG emissions, which are becoming more important under global attention due to climate change. The concept of an energy payback ratio enables us to better measure the overall benefits of different modes of energy development and better understand the advantage of hydropower in conserving energy and reducing emissions when dealing with climate change.

One way to compare different energy options is to calculate the so-called life cycle Energy Payback Ratio. This is the ratio of total energy produced during that system’s normal lifespan to the energy required to build, maintain and fuel the system. The Energy Payback Ratio of a power plant is defined as the total energy produced over the lifetime of the plant divided by the energy needed to build, operate, fuel, and decommission it. The calculating result (Gagnon, 2005) shows the energy pay back ration of hydropower is above 170, which is much higher than 18-34 for wind power, 3-5 for biological energy, 3-6 for solar energy, and 14-16 for nuclear energy. It very clearly shows the advantage of the hydropower (Figure 2).

The right to benefit

While there is clearly a strong need for more water infrastructure, this should not be at the expense of the ecosystem. Negative impacts should never be suppressed, overlooked or underestimated, when promoting future development. Prudent planning, decision making, project management and allocation of benefits are as important as technical aspects. In the light of this, the following four points are critical:

• First of all, our attitude to nature should shift away from simply exploiting natural resources and adopting restoration measures, but should aim to protect the natural environment at an early stage of planning.

• Secondly, decision making should not only be based on technical and economic feasibility, but also on social equity and environmental requirements.

• Thirdly, project operation and management should not only involve traditional techniques to ensure safety, but should also play a role in protecting the ecosystem. Examples are ensuring minimum flow, and appropriate operation of reservoirs.

• Finally, benefit-sharing should be more inclusive, rather than just relating to a region or state. All stakeholders should be involved. One should remember that all members of society have the right to benefit from a project.

Attention to the social and environmental aspects of dams and reservoirs must be a priority, at the forefront of all our activities, in the same way as concern for safety is invariably a top priority. But our greatest efforts must be to look to the future. In doing so, ICOLD will continue to act as a leading role in the field of water and energy sustainable development with cooperation and collaboration from within and outside the water sector as well as from the multiple interested parties.

‘Respecting the past, facing reality, and looking towards the future’ will be the key foundation to guide ICOLD forwards. In its continuing effort to achieve a better future in all aspects of planning and constructing dams, and to contribute in a practical way to sustainable development, ICOLD has some specific actions planned over the next three years. These include: 1) More activities to assist and support member countries; 2) Capacity building especially for less developed countries; 3) Promotion of the world declaration on Dams and Hydropower for Africa; 4) Joint preparation of a declaration on Dams and Hydropower for Asia; 5) Promotion and wider dissemination of the ICOLD Bulletins, proceedings and other work of the Commission; 6) Enhance external communications, particularly in cases of emergencies; 7) Increase ICOLD membership, by encouraging more countries to join, and increasing the involvement of young engineers in ICOLD’s work; 8) Preparation of position statements on key issues; 9) Increase collaboration with other organisations relating to water; 10) Presentations by ICOLD at international events on current issues.

In summary, dams and hydropower will play a unique and invaluable role in our changing world. The construction and operation of a dam and reservoir can no longer be considered as a purely scientific and technical matter. A wide range of other aspects are involved today: economic, social and environmental. So it is time for us to consolidate our thinking, with a view to addressing and solving all the current challenges in the field of dam engineering and hydropower.

Jia Jingsheng is the President of ICOLD. He also is Vice President of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research