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World Bank Announces Renewed Support for Large Hydropower

Delegates at the International Hydropower Association World Congress, which took place last week in Kuching in Malaysian Borneo, have heard that the World Bank has reversed a two-decade old decision to turn its back on large hydropower investment.

Speaking in the high level panel discussion Jean-Michel Devernay, Chief Technical Specialist on Hydropower for the World Bank explained that not only is hydropower now firmly back on their investment programme agenda, it is crucial to meet the bank’s key development goals.

Under the overall theme of the Congress: ‘Delivering sustainable hydropower’, Devernay explained that the World Bank has recently redefined its overall objectives to boost prosperity and eradicate poverty while avoiding a 4°C warmer world — a reference to a Worldbank report from late last year which warns current greenhouse gas emission pledges place the world on a trajectory for warming of well over 2°C, even if they are fully met. The World Bank commissioned a scientific report, ‘Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided’ from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. It concluded that the world will warm by 4°C, on average, by the end of this century with devastating consequences without taking concerted action now.

A disastrously warming planet is not just an environmental challenge, it is a fundamental threat to any effort to end poverty and threatens to put prosperity out of reach to millions, the Bank argues.

At the World Congress, Devernay explained that achieving these goals would not be possible without infrastructure development, especially the Bank’s objectives to tackle energy poverty. By way of example he added that energy poverty is a major threat to Africa’s economic development.

Devernay continued, noting that the Bank had withdrawn from the hydropower sector for about 10 years from the mid-1990s before gradually revising its strategy since about 2003. Now however, the Bank has acknowledged that not to fully engage with hydropower would impact its ability to meet its objectives.

The Bank has now pledged some $1 billion in funding for hydropower projects in the world’s poorest countries. In addition, the agency aims to place hydro higher on the political agenda, including large-scale projects.

Explaining why it had revised its decision, Devernay noted that hydro of all scales is vital in affecting the impact of climate change, it also has the highest potential for clean energy development and is abundant in the poorest regions of the world where the needs are greatest, he said.

He also highlighted that the ability of hydropower and the storage capacity associated with reservoirs are better able to manage climate variability. He furthermore gave the industry a fillip by saying: “You have done a good job addressing social and environmental aspects.”

Noting that water and energy planning need to walk ‘hand-in-hand’ Devernay urged the industry gathering to give more attention to very long-term sustainability, even well beyond the 50-100 year lifespan typically associated with hydro projects. He advised the industry to look at an extended life for hydro projects through rehabilitation and refurbishment.

He also called for the industry to connect hydropower firmly to the development agenda and foster regional collaboration.

Explaining how the World Bank can help, Devernay noted that the institution can promote good practice as well as leverage private investment to mitigate commercial risks.

Summarising he urged the gathered industry: “Help our clients do the right projects, and do the projects right”.

The news comes as the first official reports under the IHA’s sustainability protocol programme are published. The Protocol, a comprehensive tool to assess the sustainability of hydropower projects globally, provides a rigorous, evidence-based assessment of between 19-23 relevant sustainability topics, depending on the development stage of the project. These topics include issues such as downstream flow regimes, indigenous peoples, biodiversity, infrastructure safety, resettlement, water quality, and erosion and sedimentation.

The first assessments, carried out over the last year, were undertaken on hydropower projects in Brazil, Norway, Iceland, and Germany by independent teams of experts coordinated by the IHA. The assessments highlight areas in which the hydropower developers are performing well in terms of sustainability and where there is room for improvement.

Dr Joerg Hartmann, Chair of the IHA’s Protocol Governance Council, commenting on the first official assessments, said: “The release of these results shows the detailed and expert nature of Protocol assessments, we hope that having reports available publicly will encourage other stakeholders in the sector to explore how assessments can be of use to them.”

Lead image: Hydroelectric dam via Shutterstock

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