Building on Existing Sustainability Framework

Although practices like IHA’s Sustainability Assessment Protocol provide a good framework for evaluating projects for environmental and social sustainability, it could be further operationalized through an integrated, multi-level approach for ecosystem-based planning and management and cumulative impact assessment and management.

In the Asia-Pacific region of the world,
a sustainability agenda is trending across a range of sectors, including forestry, agriculture and renewable energy. The development of low-carbon clean energy sources is being promoted as an environmental sustainability strategy for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Responding to challenges on energy security and climate change caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration of Environmental Sustainability, published in 2007, affirmed that southeast Asian countries should take concrete measures to promote the use of renewable energy generation.

Fossil-fueled electric power generally dominates the overall electricity production capacities throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the dominance of fossil fuels, however, governments across the region are promoting higher levels of clean, renewable energy development for power generation as a means of reducing their greenhouse
gas emissions.

And in fact, many governments in this region of the world have set forward-looking targets for their renewable energy portfolios. For instance, Malaysia has a goal of 17% of all its electricity generation coming from renewables by 2030. In addition, Thailand has a goal of 25% by 2021 and Mongolia’s goal is 25% by 2020. Countries such as China, the Philippines and Vietnam – all of which have relatively higher levels of renewable generation in their energy mixes – have been achieving their renewable energy goals through the development of additional hydroelectric capacity.

Sustainability: Toward an integrated approach

Sustainability science enables the linking of ecological, economic and social dimensions for integrated natural resources management and evidence-based policy and planning to assure long-term ecosystem sustainability.

However, a one-size-fits-all definition of sustainability is not critical for successfully achieving cross-sectoral environmental sustainability objectives

International and regional cooperation institutions and banks have adopted sustainable development policies and practices, with many integrating sustainability, environmental and social risk management frameworks into their corporate responsibility standards.

In this business domain, sustainability can be described in a number of ways, but is often defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Ecosystem services with user-driven objectives at the landscape and watershed-scale are needed to develop an ecosystem-based roadmap for environmental and social sustainability in a multiple land use situation.

To enable landscape sustainability in a cross-sectoral context, a place-based management of ecosystem services is essential.

Landscape-scale ecological boundaries represent a pivotal scale for integrated systems thinking in natural resources management compared to any administrative boundaries. Integrated ecological framework should be employed as a best practice for integrating sustainability strategy and risk management in hydropower development projects.

Ecosystem approach to hydropower sustainability performance

The International Hydropower Association’s Sustainability Assessment Protocol, released in 2010, is a sustainability assessment tool used to measure and guide performance in the hydropower sector in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. The IHA Protocol is not a standard or sustainable hydropower certification mechanism, but rather a verification process of a project’s commitment to good operating practices.

Herein the IHA Protocol is used to make the case for mainstreaming an ecosystem-based approach at the landscape/watershed-level, as a best practice framework for integrating sustainability and risk management in hydropower development.

To further operationalize the IHA Protocol during hydropower project planning and implementation, this article presents some recommended best practices for landscape/watershed sustainability.

The recommended methods’ strategic scope includes ecosystem-based analysis and management, landscape-scale conservation of ecosystem services, cumulative impact assessment and management at landscape/watershed-level, and adaptive resource management.

The recommendations are in alignment with the IHA Protocol’s purpose for incorporating international best practice for environmental and social sustainability management system.

Project site-based Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) may not be adequate as an environmental and social sustainability framework at the landscape/watershed-scale.

For an integrated approach to address multi-stakeholder or cross-sectoral conditions, landscape/watershed-level strategic socio-ecological assessment is needed to supplement the EIA or ESIA process.

A multi-level approach along ecological hierarchy is recommended for ecosystem-based management of natural resources and landscape/watershed sustainability planning (see Table 1). Tables 2 through 4 present recommended best practices, incorporated as part of an Environmental and Social Management System (ESMS), for sustainability performance in hydropower development

Table 2: Best Practices During Early Stages

IHA Protocol-based Project Lifecycle Stage:

Early Stage (Planning Phase, Site Screening and Selection)

Landscape Ecological Assessment


Strategic assessment of ecological benefits and values at the landscape-(a cross-sectoral, coarse-filter approach)

Focus Areas:

1. Spatial ecology-based, high conservation value areas for biodiversity/habitat conservation planning and ecological risk management;

2. Climate change vulnerability and hydrologic variability for water resources planning;

3. Ecosystem services at risk for landscape-scale conservation.

Anticipated Benefits:

Risk management (through adverse impacts avoidance) and decision support on environmental sustainability during project siting and alternatives development (alternative sites or technology to eliminate impacts)

Human Dimensions Assessment


Strategic review of socio-cultural and economic benefits and values at the landscape-(a cross-sectoral, coarse-filter approach)

Focus Areas:

1. Due diligence review of land use, land tenure, and land protection;

2. Critical issues (or constraints) analysis of human-environment interactions (including potential indigenous peoples or human rights impact);

3. Ecological economics review covering built capital, natural capital, social capital, and human capital.

Anticipated Benefits:

Social dimensions-related risk identification and mitigation, early stakeholder engagement to ensure project viability, and decision support on social sustainability during project siting and alternatives development

Table 3: Best Practices During Preparation Stage

IHA Protocol-based Project Lifecycle Stage:

Preparation Stage (Preliminary and Detailed Design Phase)

River Basin Assessment (or Watershed Analysis)

Multi-tier Approach (based on desired levels of detail):

1. reconnaissance-assessment, existing information review.

2. preliminary assessment with coarse-filter; predictive modeling- based, probabilistic field survey.

3. detailed assessment with fine-filter, intensive field survey and site assessment (guided by 1 & 2 assessments)


Elucidate water resources dynamics and land-water linkages for integrated watershed planning and management

Focus Areas:

1. Geomorphic (both hillslope & fluvial processes) and hydrologic assessment (i.e., soil erosion & sedimentation, water quality, hydrology & hydraulics, climate change & water resources);

2. River/stream ecology, aquatic species-habitat relationships (both resident & migratory species), and watershed-scale conservation design;

3. Stakeholder engagement (both upstream land users & downstream water users) for participatory, land and water resources planning.

Anticipated Benefits:

Risk assessment and management, inclusive stakeholder engagement (collaboration and negotiation), and multi-criteria decision support for integrated watershed management.

Cumulative Impact Assessment & Management


Identify and manage cumulative effects at the river basin or watershed (cross-sectoral in nature, along an ecological boundary)

Focus Areas:

Past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions contributing to adverse impacts on ecosystem-based benefits and values (ecological, socio- cultural, & economic components)

Anticipated Benefits:

Integrated systems thinking in cumulative watershed effects for planning and management of aggregate impacts or downstream effects.

Table 4: Best Practices During Implementation and Operation Stages

IHA Protocol-based Project Lifecycle Stage:

Implementation Stage and Operation Stage

Adaptive Management, Monitoring & Evaluation


1. Enable adaptive management process (the plan-implement-monitor- evaluate cycle) for management solutions to address uncertainties;

2. Establish markers for assessing progress (indicators & thresholds) towards desired future conditions in sustainability performance.

Focus Areas:

1. Evaluation through monitoring (implementation, effectiveness, & validation), using learning-based “management experiments” at various spatial and temporal scales;

2. Monitoring and evaluation of ecological, economic, and social-related indicators and targets, and management strategy-related risks and constraints.

Anticipated Benefits:

1. Systematic, iterative process for continuous improvement of management strategy and best practices;

2. Ecosystem-based approach to sustainability, using collaboratively developed vision and goals of desired future conditions.

Final thoughts

Mainstreaming ecosystem-based analysis, planning and management at the landscape/ watershed-level enables a best practice framework to integrate sustainability and risk management into hydropower development. In landscape/watershed sustainability planning, a multi-level approach along ecological hierarchy is essential for integrated thinking in human-environment interactions.

Sustainability planning and management require the linking of business, science and policy. To build on pre-existing frameworks (for example, IHA’s Protocol, or an enterprise-wide ESMS), the proposed best practices could be used as an ecosystem-based methodology for both environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Strategic assessments that evaluate projects at the landscape/watershed-level are needed in addition to the operations-focused EIAs and ESIAs.

People are part of the ecosystem, so stakeholder engagement is an essential component of integrated land-use planning and natural resources management at the landscape/watershed- level. Collaboratively developed visions for the desired future conditions of ecosystem services are important for sustainability strategies.

Continual improvement of the management strategies and actions enables advancements toward the desired result of sustainability performance. Monitoring and evaluating appropriate indicators and thresholds allows hydropower projects to promote learning from experience, all the while improving and adjusting practices for evidence-based planning and decision support.

Malcom Pious is a natural resources planning and management specialist at EIC360. He operates at the intersection of science, policy and business by integrating ecological, social and economic objectives in natural resources planning and adaptive ecosystem management and strategic framework development.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally presented at Renewable Energy World Asia 2015 as “Ecosystem Approach as Sustainability Framework for Hydropower Development in Asia-Pacific.”

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