Asian countries lead the world today in hydropower generation, with more growth projected in coming years. Indeed, the International Energy Agency estimates that global hydropower capacity will double between now and 2040, with half of that new development to take place in Asia.
Emerging economies in particular are under extraordinary pressure to harness the power offered by their rivers and other natural resources. But while hydropower dams are often hailed as sources of clean energy and economic transformation, they are not without tradeoffs, especially when development takes the form of a series of single projects, without consideration for the cumulative impacts on river systems as a whole -- and the communities and ecosystems that depend on them.
Countries throughout Asia have an opportunity to adopt a new status quo for hydropower development -- one that takes into account the potential impacts to communities, regional economies and ecosystems and charts a course toward development that achieves a broader and more balanced range of benefits. In doing so, Asia can become a global leader in smart hydropower development.
The power of rivers
Rivers are incredibly powerful in ways that go beyond electricity generation. They support agriculture, navigation routes, fisheries and some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet. Those other resources and ecosystems, and all the benefits they confer, can be disrupted by the fragmentation caused by hydropower dams.
Consider the Mekong, one of the primary rivers undergoing hydropower development in Asia, along with the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy and the Salween rivers. In addition to having substantial hydropower potential, the Mekong also sustains fisheries that feed tens of millions of people, including producing 80% of the protein consumed by the people of Cambodia. The Mekong could see its fish productivity cut in half, though, if a proposed series of main-stem dams, which sit on a river's principal trunk, is completed. Other rivers will face these kinds of extreme negative impacts if hydropower development does not move toward a much more sustainable approach.
Poorly planned hydropower dams can have dramatic, irreversible impacts on rivers and the people and ecosystems that rely on them. Social and environmental impacts result in conflict around hydropower development, leading to delays and cancellations of projects and increasing uncertainty for developers, governments and investors. But there is a better way. Planning at the river basin or system scale is a critical first step that governments and developers can take to find development scenarios that allow for significant energy production while minimizing impact to rivers, ecosystems and communities. A system-scale approach seeks to compare alternative development options upfront and identify those that can most effectively balance energy development with the protection or enhancement of other resources.
Myanmar, with the entrance of the new government led by Aung Sun Suu Kyi is one country that has an opportunity to put its hydropower development on a better path. Strategic system-scale planning, beginning now, can allow the country to select which hydropower investments will deliver the most benefits, and recent moves by the government signal a potential shift in approach. Already, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy plans to reassess hydropower projects in light of questions about social and environmental impacts. This re-evaluation could help the country secure low-carbon energy while protecting one of its most valuable resources -- its rivers.
Myanmar's rivers are, indeed, a source of wealth for its people. They provide food, jobs and a reliable source of water for navigation, irrigation and daily life. In fact, Myanmar's freshwater fisheries produce more than 1.3 million tons of fish per year and employ approximately 1.5 million people. Myanmar has a pressing need for new power sources, but its new government has expressed a clear commitment to finding energy solutions that are sustainable and minimize social and environmental impacts.
In a report funded by the U.K.'s Department for International Development, The Nature Conservancy worked with the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the University of Manchester to demonstrate a framework that could be applied in Myanmar and replicated worldwide to change the trajectory of water resource development toward one that delivers a broader range of benefits, reduces uncertainty and improves transparency. This framework, known as system-scale planning, compares alternative development options upfront and identifies those that can most effectively balance energy development with the enhancement or maintenance of other economic, social and environmental resources.
The report examined hydropower development on Myanmar's Myitnge River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy River with two existing hydropower dams. The report found that building additional dams in the Myitnge sub-basin would increase river fragmentation and could potentially diminish fish production, but it also found several combinations of dams and operating rules that would produce almost the same amount of energy, but with potentially much lower impacts on fish productivity. Some of these options could also produce high performance for multiple sectors -- such as energy, fisheries and navigation -- at a relatively low cost.
But Myanmar's government, or those in other countries, cannot pursue this new approach alone. It will require collaboration with investors, developers and stakeholder groups. Thankfully, there are signs that key industry groups and multilateral institutions are strongly interested in promoting better system planning.
For example, bilateral and multilateral financial institutions are supporting large-scale planning processes for water and energy infrastructure in Myanmar. However, in much of the world, countries do not have systems in place to conduct strategic planning and projects emerge and are developed as a sequence of individual steps, often with minimal social and environmental safeguards.
In part as a response to this widespread gap in capacity for planning and safeguards, the hydropower sector, funders, governments and non-governmental organizations together developed the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. The protocol is a framework for evaluating the sustainability of hydropower projects to help decision-makers better plan, design, operate and manage projects. While thus far the protocol has been primarily applied at the scale of individual projects, it also includes an "early stage" component that can be used to guide risk-screening of candidate projects or as an assessment of a strategic planning approach for hydropower.
Myanmar thus has access to a range of resources and tools that can be used to inform a strategic and system-scale approach to hydropower planning. Ultimately, finding more balanced hydropower developments is not just a good deal for governments and communities, it is the only deal that will work over the long term. As countries throughout Asia confront the challenges posed by hydropower development, Myanmar can demonstrate the value of pursuing system-scale planning while also growing its economy. This is a deal that should not be allowed to pass us by.
Jeff Opperman is lead scientist for the great rivers program at The Nature Conservancy.