Unnecessary sins?

19 November 2013

WWF acknowledges that some dam developers make considerable efforts to avoid, minimise, mitigate and compensate any negative effects that their projects may have, as well as enhancing their positive effects. However, the conservation organisation says the reality is that unnecessary sins of dam development are still being committed.

Fifteen years ago, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) began its mission to conduct an independent review of the development effectiveness of large dams. Despite varied reactions to the final report, the WWF says many of the key recommendations have since been broadly acknowledged. Indeed in 2011, the International Hydropower Association made significant progress and released the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. A broadly accepted tool to measure and improve the sustainability performance of hydropower projects across a range of criteria, the protocol urges developers, regulators, financiers and other interested parties adhere to high sustainability standards. Some governments have since incorporated elements of the recommendations into their planning and permitting processes, and some banks have included them in their safeguards and lending guidelines.

However, as WWF cautions in its new report The Seven Sins of Dam Building, many dam projects still get things wrong. All over the world, the conservation organisation claims, some dams proceed without proper consultation, risk management, or consideration of the natural ecosystems that both dams and people rely on.

“Despite many advances in sustainability thinking in planning and management practices, dam projects around the world continue to get things fundamentally wrong," report authors Andrea Kraljevic, Jian-hua Meng and Patricia Schelle say. "At times it may be merely a single underperforming aspect that discredits an entire project, but sometimes there are a wide range of flaws and wrongdoings. In today's world, these flaws, wrongdoings, omissions, or shortcomings against the natural environment and society, despite all available science, knowledge, and a century of modern experiences, are neither necessary nor permissible."

The report highlights common pitfalls of dam building - the seven sins so to speak - and identifies some of the projects going ahead today (though they may have begun many decades ago) that still test the waters with both feet.

“Properly planned, built, and operated dams can contribute to food and energy security. Unfortunately, short-term interests are too often the focus of decision-making," says Jian-hua Meng, Water Security Specialist for WWF.

“In order to guarantee acceptable levels of social and environmental sustainability, dam installations and operations should be stringently checked against sustainability criteria as formulated under the World Commission on Dams or the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. If necessary, insufficiently performing projects must be modified or halted," added Meng.

No sustainable outcomes can be expected when dam proponents rely on superior financial strength and political connections rather than on dialogue, transparency and reason, says WWF. Additionally, some governments lack the capacity or independence to protect public interests. As the report states, successful and overall long-term beneficial dam projects need more than just the legal regulator's approval.

“For large-scale projects, operators must also obtain the 'social licence to operate'. Acceptance of the project by the population is fundamental to sustainable management," says Meng. "Negative effects, such as relocation, destruction of cultural sites, or the collapse of local fisheries are still too often dismissed as somebody else's problem."

Scientific evidence and risk assessments too frequently lose out to one-sided political or economic agendas, according to the report. Subsequently, dams are still planned and built in ecologically high value areas and biodiversity loss is still too often not accounted for. Serious impacts, caused by a change in the natural water flow dynamics or the disappearance of wetlands, are still not given consideration, it is claimed. Moreover, WWF says that the size of a dam is not necessarily a deciding factor. Though large projects can be found in the report's case studies, the cumulative impact of many small hydro projects cannot be underestimated.

Indeed the problems are not limited to developing and emerging countries. G7 companies and engineers continue to not only push projects forward in emerging markets that are unacceptable by global standards, but also in the heart of the EU and North America, WWF claims.

“WWF reviewed nine dams and we found that many projects commit not just one, but many grave sins of dam building. However, these errors are avoidable. Lack of capacity, economic pressure, or specific regional circumstances can no longer be presented as excuses," Meng stated.

The 'seven sins' outlined in the report are listed below and illustrated with case studies.

1) Building on the wrong river
The planned 900MW extension of the Kaunertal power plant in Austria would, WWF claims, "irreversibly change nearly untouched nature. The affected habitats belong to the most threatened in the entire Alps and are therefore of national and broader regional importance. Despite massive local resistance, the energy provider TIWAG has not yet relented on its plans."
WWF also gives the example of multiple small hydropower projects under construction in three river basins in Romania: the 7.6MW Sambata, 2.8MW Sebes and 1.7MW Dejani-Lupsa projects.

The WWF report states: "In breach of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Romanian laws, construction is seriously disrupting the riverbeds and threatening the longitudinal connectivity of the river, which negatively affects the water's ecological status (as defined by the WFD) and ecosystem services. An additional consequence is a slowly dwindling water supply for local communities because of the impacts on the aquifers."

2) Neglecting downstream flows
The planned construction of a cascade of four hydropower dams on the Moraca River in Montenegro will threaten Lake Skadar's biodiversity and critically change the seasonal variability of lake's water level, WWF says. It goes on to add that dam construction would drastically affect 90% of the 280 bird species that use the northern bank of the lake.
In addition the planned construction of the Cide Regulator and Hydropower Electric Power Plant on the Devrekani River in Turkey is also cited as a case study in the report. If implemented, WWF says the project will alter the intact structure, quantity, and quality of the Devrekani River, which is one of the major water resources of the Kure Mountains National Park. The park received legal protection status in 2000 due to its outstanding natural landforms, the natural structure of old-growth forests, intact river ecosystems, rich wildlife, and biodiversity.

3) Neglecting biodiversity
Estimates suggest that nearly 40 freshwater species have become extinct or expired due to the damming of the river Coosa in Alabama, US. The 691MW hydropower project is now undergoing relicensing and WWF says that "FERC relicensing of Alabama Power's dams is the first opportunity in half a century to improve river conditions for people, fish, and wildlife, ensuring a future for 21 federally listed species in the area."

4) Falling for bad economics
WWF says that the 11,000MW Belo Monte project, currently under construction on the Xingu River in Brazil, "overestimates the reliable energy generation and underestimates the social, cultural, environmental, and economic costs."
Recent droughts and studies on climate change have also questioned the estimated hydropower potential of the scheme.

5) Failing to acquire the social licence to operate
WWF says that the social licence to operate can be equally or at times even more relevant to the success and sustainability of a dam as the regulatory licence. Furthermore, poor consultation and failure to address resettlement and downstream livelihood issues "almost always results in conflict".

The social licence to operate touches on a range of sustainability aspects, most importantly on the concept of community engagement and acceptance. Even projects that have been in operation for a long time must maintain and often improve relations with the various social groups affected by or concerned with the project, WWF believes.
In East Africa the 1870MW Gilgel Gibe III dam is under construction on the River Omo. WWF claims that: "The Ethiopian government in collaboration with the Kenyan government is pushing an energy agenda that has very little regard for environmental, social, and economic security along the Omo River and particularly on the Lake Turkana ecosystem downstream, upon which local communities depend."

6) Mishandling risks and impacts
Efforts to construct the Boguchanskaya Dam on the Angara River in Russia, date back nearly half a century. Originally designed in the 1970s, and after decades of stop-start construction activities due to economic turbulence and fluctuating power demand, the project resumed in 2005 and began generating power in 2012.

“Though the dam is guilty of each of the sins," WWF says in its report, "most remarkable is the developers' mishandling of risks and impacts. Since its' original design, the tools for identifying, avoiding, and mitigating impacts have become widely established. Nevertheless when the project resumed, it did not undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) with the excuse that there was no EIA requirement in 1976 when the original construction permit was obtained under Soviet Union law. Initial efforts at public hearings and consultation were also terminated once the hope for foreign funding was gone."

WWF claims that the dam's construction phase was marked by major violations of processes for resettlement, forest clearing, wildlife conservation and reservoir filling. The dam's design is also claimed to be insufficient to withstand extreme floods and lacks 25-40% of the necessary capacity for 1000-year events.

7) Blindly following temptation/bias to build
For centuries, water resource management has been dominated by an engineering 'can-do' mindset. In most developed countries, according to WWF, this has led to the full development, and in some cases over-development, of water resources.
“Seen from another perspective," the conservation organisation adds, "even if past decision-making had been impartial and only based on honest estimates of costs and benefits at the time, past models were certainly imperfect. Increasingly good knowledge and tools are available today. Just as there is no good reason to use outdated technologies, there is no good reason to make decisions through outdated mechanisms."

WWF claims that the construction of the 1285MW Xayaburi dam on the River Mekong is not driven "by the local need for electricity in Laos, but by the increasing demand for electricity over the border in Thailand. Though it is claimed that Xayaburi will contribute to poverty alleviation, monetary benefits will flow directly to Thai financiers, while serious external costs will be borne by both local people and downstream nations."

The report goes on to state that it believes dam design and operation "is based on insufficient data and knowledge of aquatic ecology and sediment". Furthermore WWF says that: "Without a thorough understanding of the processes that support downstream landforms, ecosystems, and economic activities, the consequences on ecosystems and human settlements downstream are potentially catastrophic."

Reduce conflict
In its report conclusion WWF admits that developing water resources involves multiple trade-offs, risks and conflicts between different demands on the water. And although in some cases dams may be an acceptable and appropriate solution, "more care needs to be taken to identify those cases, and to site, design, and operate dams in a way that reduces conflicts."

WWF goes on to add: "Some dam developers understand these differing objectives and make considerable efforts to avoid, minimize, mitigate, and compensate any negative effects that their projects may have and enhance their positive effects. The closer they get to what would be considered in the public interest, the less risky is their investment and the better they can protect their reputation. This principle is behind many of the guidelines, safeguards, and recommendations published in recent years, including the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, which WWF has co-developed as part of our effort to achieve international application of good practices and standards."

However the reality, WWF concludes, is that some dam developers still pursue narrowly perceived short-term interests and some governments are not strong, capable, and independent enough to protect the public interest. In these cases, WWF states, conflicts are almost inevitable.

“The 'seven sins' of dam development are unnecessary," report authors Andrea Kraljevic, Jian-hua Meng and Patricia Schelle state. "Ultimately it is better to avoid them if one is interested in longer-term outcomes and success. It is a matter of applying existing knowledge; good industry and regulatory practices are readily available.

“WWF calls on governments, banks, and the various industry sectors involved in dams - energy and water utilities, irrigation agencies, contractors, and others - to do their share to avoid the increasingly unacceptable conflicts over dams."

The Seven Sins of Dam Building by Andrea Kraljevic, Jian-hua Meng and Patricia Schelle. Published by WWF International - Freshwater Programme & WWF-Germany. March 2013

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