by Emil Morhardt
Yesterday, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) announced that the Nature Conservancy would be one of the main sponsors of its World Hydropower Congress in Beijing next May. In an accompanying piece the Nature Conservancy’s Jeff Opperman explained why. It is an interesting question. I spent much of the two decades between 1975 and 1995 as an environmental consultant to hydropower developers, and the one constant was unrelenting opposition from almost every environmental group. Hydroelectric installations disrupt river flows, block river passage, often inundate great swaths of previously undeveloped watersheds, and do it in a way that is only optimistically renewable, at least where large storage reservoirs are involved; in time all reservoirs fill with sediment, and the projects revert to run-of-river facilities which are generally less valuable and less useful.
The Nature Conservancy is an unusual environmental group though, generally acquiring its own land and managing it sustainably, so it has an inside view of environmentally beneficial land management practices. And it recognizes something that environmental consultants to industry find out quickly; it is much easier to steer projects in environmentally beneficial directions from the inside, before much engineering gets done, then after the fact when the project proponents have settled on a design.
What Opperman writes is more-or-less that same sentiment, supporting the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol the Nature Conservancy helped develop (along with the IHA, World Wildlife Fund, and others) and noting that continued helpful suggestions and interactions with developers are likely to have a better overall result than confrontation.