Hydropower has a long and complicated relationship with the conservation movement and national parks and other protected areas. In fact, the conservation movement in the United States cut its teeth fighting to protect parks from hydropower dams and their environmental and social impacts.
This complicated relationship persists: a scientific paper published this week documented that more than 500 hydropower dams are planned, or are under construction, inside of protected areas around the world. However, countries do not need to sacrifice their protected areas to meet power needs; dramatic progress in energy technologies has diversified options and offers a path to avoid the conflicts of the past.
Those conflicts between hydropower and parks arose at the turn of the last century. The Sierra Club rose to national prominence—and launched one of the first “grassroots” public campaigns—during a 12-year battle to stop the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park (the primary motivation to build the dam was to provide water supply for San Francisco, but the project includes a 234-MW hydropower plant; the Secretary of the Interior who approved the project noted that hydropower generation “could…pay for the costs of construction.” )
While that effort was unsuccessful—and today San Francisco is the only major U.S. city to get its water from damming a river in a national park—the Sierra Club firmly established its national identity in the 1960s with successful campaigns to stop proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona – campaigns which established the Club’s president, David Brower, as the “Archdruid of the Environmental Movement.”
Another prominent conservation organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was borne out of a legal battle to stop construction of a pumped storage hydropower project that would have impacted a state park along the Hudson River (New York).
These various conflicts, and similar ones in other countries, ultimately strengthened the status of protected areas in much of the world. Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the construction of a dam like O’Shaughnessy in a national park in the United States – it would be legally impossible and socially unacceptable.
However, in many regions of the world, protected areas do not protect rivers from being dammed.
In a paper published in Conservation Letters, Michele Thieme and colleagues reported that over 500 hydropower dams are either under construction or proposed to be built within protected areas, including national parks (disclosure: Thieme is a colleague of mine at WWF-US). This represents 14% of all known proposed hydropower projects globally. Countries with large numbers of hydropower dams proposed within protected areas include Brazil, Ecuador, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, and the Balkan countries of southeast Europe (see photo at top).
In addition to protected areas with future risk from proposed dams, nearly 1000 protected areas already have dams within their boundaries. Further, in several countries, protected areas have had their boundaries or status changed to accommodate past dam construction. O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite was perhaps the first example of this as Congressional approval was required to overrule policies that would have prevented dam construction within a national park. A study focused on Brazil found that 25 protected areas have either been downsized or “degazetted” (the entire protected area lost its status) to accommodate hydropower development – most of these events have happened in the past decade.
Thus, there is a long history—beginning in 1914 and continuing to the current decade—of protected areas having their status changed to allow damming of rivers within them. Hundreds of additional protected areas are at risk of similar fates. These results emphasize that great uncertainty shrouds our estimates of the extent of rivers that are actually protected globally.
Dams are one of the primary drivers of the decline of river ecosystems and the services they provide to people, such as freshwater fisheries and delivery of sediment to maintain agriculturally crucial deltas. To maintain these services, global objectives for river protection have been established, such as those under the Convention on Biological Diversity (currently approximately 16% of rivers are located within protected areas).
However, the fact that rivers within protected areas may not be protected from damming suggests that tracking progress toward those targets will be elusive. Consistent and durable protection policies for rivers will be required to counteract the current uncertainty and uneven performance of river protection.
The hydropower sector can contribute to improving the durability of river protections by avoiding new development projects within protected areas and by supporting inclusive planning efforts and government policies that define where hydropower can be developed with lower negative impacts and where rivers should be protected from development. Strategic planning and clear guidelines can reduce the risk of conflict around development and, because conflict typically leads to delays and cost overruns, also reduce investment risk. The Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Hydropower Sector in Myanmar, supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is an example of a first step in a planning process to identify areas of lower risk for hydropower development and also rivers that should be protected from future hydropower, including the free-flowing Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.
Tradeoffs accompany every decision about energy development. The Sierra Club’s victory in protecting national parks in the American southwest from dam development entailed two major tradeoffs. The cancellation of hydropower projects in the Grand Canyon triggered construction of a coal-fired power plant to offset the foregone electricity. And in exchange for the Bureau of Reclamation cancelling the dams proposed for Dinosaur National Monument, David Brower supported construction of a massive dam in the Glen Canyon section of the Colorado River. He later lamented, “Glen Canyon died, and I was partly responsible for its needless death.”
Thus, even decisions to protect rivers from energy development have often required environmental tradeoffs, such as increased emissions of greenhouse gases or losses of other iconic rivers. Further, for decades, many countries believed that hydropower was their only viable domestic and low-cost source of electricity and that they had no option but to bear the difficult tradeoffs of displaced communities and diminished fisheries.
However, the renewable revolution—the dramatically dropping costs for wind and solar generation alongside advances in storage and grid management—signals a new day in which tradeoffs between rivers and energy do not need to be so steep. Recent research suggests that countries can now build power systems that are low cost and low carbon – and also low conflict with communities, national parks, fisheries and other values.
Actual investment trends are confirming these research results. In Chile, several proposed dams that had stirred intense conflict, in part due to their impacts on national parks, were suspended in 2015 and solar projects have dominated subsequent grid capacity expansion.
Cambodia recently announced a ten-year moratorium on hydropower dams on the Mekong River, a decision that no doubt reflects growing uncertainty about hydropower’s performance during droughts and rising regional investments in solar, highlighted by a Cambodian solar project’s recent record low bid for electricity generation in Southeast Asia. This moratorium means that Cambodia has put on hold plans to build the massive Sambor Dam, which would have inundated large areas of the river designated in 2012 by the Cambodian government as a protected zone for rare river dolphins (Sambor dam was also described as “the worst possible place [on the Mekong] to build a major dam” due to its projected massive impacts on migratory fish).
These real-world examples, underpinned by global trends in declining cost and rising investment for solar and wind, provide strong evidence that future energy development can avoid the tradeoffs of the past, including large-scale displacement of people, loss of migratory fish, and the damming of the relatively small proportion of rivers with formal protection.