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First hydropower Standard signals a new era for the industry, but must be strengthened to avoid mistakes of the past

Posted on 08 September 2021

New Standard launched at World Hydropower Congress
The Hydropower Standard represents a step forward for the sector, committing it to reduce its negative impacts on rivers, communities and nature. However, the Hydropower Standard must be rigorously implemented and strengthened if it is to truly transform the sector and minimise its social and environmental costs.

“Hydropower has often come at a high cost to rivers, communities and freshwater biodiversity: this new Standard signals an intention to transition towards low impact hydropower,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead. “But it still needs to be strengthened to robustly safeguard critical free flowing rivers, protected areas and vulnerable communities from high impact hydropower.”

With the industry facing increasing criticism of its operations and competition from lower impact renewables like wind and solar, the Standard commits the sector to clearly defined good and best practices in planning, building and operations of hydropower facilities and ancillary infrastructure.

The Standard establishes minimum thresholds for the first time that hydropower projects must exceed to be certified, including the Free Prior and Informed Consent of indigenous people. Local communities will also be able to call on the Standard when a new project threatens their livelihoods or an existing facility does not live up to its commitments. Critically the Standard will be assessed by ISEAL for adherence to its codes of conduct, which will mean an audit of the governance of the tool and ensure its independence.”

“WWF helped to make the Standard more rigorous but it still doesn’t meet our ambitions and we are calling for urgent efforts to strengthen it - to avoid a repetition of the destructive hydropower projects of the past and irreparable damage to more free flowing rivers and protected areas in the future,” added Orr.

WWF is calling for further improvements to clarify how impact will be measured, avoid new hydropower projects in all protected areas, and ensure that existing hydropower plants cannot be certified without accounting for legacy issues, including negatively impacting local communities and destroying biodiversity. WWF welcomes the commitment of the International Hydropower Association to ongoing strengthening of the tool.

Existing plans of new hydropower dams would fragment 260,000 km of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers, including most in the tropics, which are critical hotspots of the planet's biodiversity. These planned dams would produce less than 2% of the renewable energy needed by 2050 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees - a tiny contribution to mitigating climate change that would have devastating consequences for many of our remaining free flowing rivers, and the people and nature that depend on them.

“If the Standard is implemented, we should see thousands of planned high impact hydropower projects rapidly being axed - projects that threaten many of the world’s remaining free flowing rivers and the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature,” said Orr. “For example, if the Standard were fully applied, none of the hydropower projects outlined in WWF’s recent 10 Rivers at Risk report should be built, keeping those rivers free flowing for the benefit of people and nature.”

For the first time, the world can now meet global climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free flowing rivers and further impacting high value ecosystems as the new WWF/TNC analysis, A Brighter Future, makes clear. By accelerating the renewable revolution, our energy future can be LowCx3 - low carbon, low cost and low conflict with communities, rivers and nature.

“We can create a Brighter Future for people, climate, rivers and nature by investing in the Right Renewables in the Right Places,” said Orr. “In some areas, new hydropower will be part of the best overall LowCx3 energy mix, such as helping to stabilize the power grid. The Standard can help to ensure that only low impact and overall beneficial hydropower is developed."
The Amaila Falls Hydropower Project
© WWF Guianas
Tapajos river is just one of many free flowing rivers threatened by high impact hydropower
© Zig Koch / WWF-Brazil
Hydropower plant on Soča River, Slovenia
Hydropower plant on Soča River, Slovenia
© iStockphoto.com/Socha