VIEWPOINT: The Quest for Sustainable Hydropower

Carl Vansant
Editor Emeritus

We hear a lot about “sustainability” these days. “Sustainable” is a much-used modifier, as in sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities, sustainable energy, sustainable development … and sustainable hydropower.

A dictionary definition of sustainable is, “capable of being sustained; of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” To most people in our industry, hydropower would seem to naturally fit this definition. Yet, things are not so simple.

That’s because the quality of “sustainability” is not a matter of black or white. Rather, it characterizes a pivot point between good and bad.

The debate over hydro’s sustainability arrived front and center after the publication, in 2000, of the World Commission on Dams’ report, Dams and Development. This report acknowledged that “Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development … .” Yet, it also was critical in observing that “In too many cases an unacceptable … price has been paid … .” The report went on to recommend practices to guide the future development of dams. This drew strong reaction from the hydro industry, owing to the conclusion that, however well-intended the recommendations were, strict adherence would largely prevent even the most responsible future development of large-scale hydro projects.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA) has been active in tackling this issue and has pursued the development of tools and practices that can foster increased responsibility and transparency in hydropower development. The association’s efforts have resulted in the publication of Sustainability Guidelines and the development of methods for assessing projects’ sustainability.

As part of IHA’s focus on sustainability, the association recently held its 2009 World Congress in Iceland on the theme of “Advancing Sustainable Hydropower.” About 300 participants from 50 countries discussed issues relating to improving hydro’s sustainability and acceptability as one of the world’s leading sources of energy. At the conclusion of the Congress, IHA vice president Roger Gill observed that, while delegates came to discuss the business of hydropower, they discovered they were discussing “the sustainability of the world.”

IHA provides vital services to the hydro industry – addressing sustainability and other cutting-edge issues. The association deserves and has proven highly worthy of your support!

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