Hydropower - The Effect of Climate Mitigation on Human Rights
Environment and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
The longstanding burning of fossil fuels causes momentous changes to our climate and environment that directly threaten human wellbeing. The current climate crisis highlights that business as usual is unsustainable. Hence, transitioning to renewable energy is key to achieve sustainable development (International Energy Agency). To combat the adverse impacts of climate change, states have pledged to reduce emissions drastically and limit global warming. But governments face an enormous challenge: they have to square massive, and rising, demands for energy with currently costly and less efficient ways of energy production.
Hydropower is propagated by the International Energy Agency as a key solution for a clean energy transition. In 2020, 71% of renewable energy globally was produced by hydropower alone, but it holds large untapped potential (Moran, Lopez, Moore, Müller & Hyndman, 2020, p. 11892). Hydropower offers cheap and flexible electricity generation while having low carbon emissions. Research suggests that the use of hydropower instead of fossil fuels has avoided over 100 billion tonnes of CO2 in the past 50 years alone, which surpasses wind and solar by far (Rogner et. al., 2021, p. 3). Because of its many advantages, hydropower is promoted by numerous development programmes, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Affordable clean energy is invaluable for countries in which a majority of the population is still not connected to the electric grid.
However, the seemingly auspicious solution for clean and sustainable energy has major drawbacks. “Hydropower, as with any major infrastructure development, inevitably brings changes to the environment and society, such as affecting people’s lands, rights and culture” (Aung et. al,. 2020, p. 417). Counter to its clean and green image, common practices of hydropower projects in developing countries are unsustainable and have serious adverse environmental and social impacts. In comparison with other renewables, hydropower faces the most allegations of human rights abuses (Business and Human Rights and Resource Center). Environmental and social concerns already arose in hydropower projects in the 20th century and prompted the closure of several facilities (Moran et. al., 2020, p. 11891). Nevertheless, long known issues seem to be repeated in current development projects.
Environmental, Social and Human Rights Concerns of Hydropower Projects
Hydropower projects pose a risk to livelihoods, and a number of civil-political and economic, social and cultural human rights. Violations are widespread, from the right to a healthy environment, the right to life and an adequate standard of living, to the right to food and (safe) water. Particularly vulnerable ethnic groups and indigenous populations face repeated violations of their rights (Aung, 2021, p. 429). The World Bank (2012) observed that “reservoir projects generally affect the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society” (Okuku et al, 2015, p. 14). Contrary to their objectives, hydropower projects often lead to the deterioration of living standards and fall short of development goals, among others poverty reduction, increased food production, flood control and electricity generation. Governments either contribute to or fail to adequately address these issues, violating their obligations under international conventions and human rights treaties.
The main environmental issues associated with hydropower are the disruption of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. Hence, people’s food systems and access to safe water are compromised. Most affected communities rely on fishing and agriculture as their main source of income. Hydropower megaprojects dispossess and displace millions of people worldwide – an estimated 80 million in the last century (Scudder, 2011). Local opposition to projects is often met with repression and violence, putting environmental and human rights defenders at great risk.
Generally, hydropower produces electricity by harnessing energy stored in water. The main types of hydropower systems are (i) run off river hydropower, (ii) storage hydropower and (iii) pumped storage hydropower (International Hydropower Association).
In run off river hydropower river water is channeled to spin a turbine. As the river never stops flowing it provides a continuous energy supply.
Storage hydropower is typically a dam that stores water in a reservoir. When water is released from the reservoir and led through a turbine it powers an electricity generator. A big advantage over alternatives like wind and solar is that storage hydropower does not depend on external factors like wind or sun exposure. Therefore, its power generation and storage capacity is much more flexible.
The third type is a system of two dams, one lower and one higher, in between which the water is cycled by a pump. The release of water from the upper to the lower reservoir produces energy in the same way as common storage hydropower.
To identify and illustrate the social and environmental issues caused by hydropower, this article will explore several case studies. In recent years, hydropower development has increased predominantly in Asia, South America and Africa. Areas such as the Amazon, Congo and Mekong in particular attract hydropower development projects (Moran et. al., 2020, p. 11891). These regions are some of the largest biodiversity reserves in the world but hydropower projects threaten these ecosystems.
Shweli hydropower dam 1, Northern Shan State, Myanmar
The Shweli 1 dam in Myanmar began operating in 2008 (Aung, Fischer & Azmi, 2021, p. 420). Lack of formal requirements allowed poor environmental and social monitoring of the dam construction, operation and maintenance (Aung et al, 2021, p. 430). Approximately 2000 acres of community forests and cultivated farms were flooded by the reservoir (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 429). As a result, villagers reported cases of land confiscation, involuntary resettlements and property damage (ibid.). Moreover, most of the large-scale dams in Myanmar are located in conflict stricken areas and have increased the risk of conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the government (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 430). This is the case with Shweli 1 because it is located in a disputed region with a presence of ethnic armed groups (ibid.). Overall, the dam did not deliver tangible benefits to the local community, such as improved access to electricity or the creation of jobs. Constructed by China’s Sinohydro Corporation, most of the electricity produced by Shweli 1 is exported to the Chinese market, where it will be used for military factories and mining operations (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 429). The Shweli dam case exemplifies the so-called boomtown effect, commonly seen in hydropower projects. This phenomenon is the sudden and large-scale influx of construction workers and related groups within small, often traditional and remote local communities, which causes local social, health, economic and cultural problems (Cernea, 2004). Only Chinese workers were employed for the construction of the Shweli dam, while the local population was subjected to forced labor for road construction (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 429). Locals reported child labor, unfair low wage payments, and restricted/curbed rights to freedom of association (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 428). Moreover, villagers were not allowed to use the facilities at the medical clinic established for Chinese workers and soldiers (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 429). Despite the massive drawbacks of Shweli 1, the proposed Shweli 2 and 3 dams are still set to go ahead.
Central and South America
Teles Pires, Mato Grosso, Pará, Brazil
Dam construction in the Amazon Basin, holding the largest diversity of fish on earth and one of the most productive inland fisheries, has increased drastically over the past years – 147 dams are planned in an area of 6 million square kilometers (Moran et. al., 2018, p. 11893). Despite the predictable adverse impacts of the Teles Pires dam on indigenous livelihoods, way of life and spiritual practices, construction finished in 2015 without prior, free and informed consent of indigenous communities (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2020). It is part of the larger “Complexo Teles Pires” hydropower scheme along the Teles Pires river which includes 5 other dams (ibid.). Hydropower companies demonstrated outright disregard for indigneous communities by destroying a waterfall area (Sete Quedas, locally known as Karobixexé) sacred to the Kayabi, Apiaká and Munduruku and removing indigenous funeral urns (Branford & Torres, 2017, Mongabay). Environmental and social impact assessments of Teles Pires were inadequate, or not conducted at all. As a result, environmental and social costs of the dams were seriously underestimated (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2020). After the dam started operating, the Munduruku community reported a decline in fisheries and water quality (ibid). Another dam of the Complexo Teles Pires, led to the privatization of water resources – “in fact water access is controlled by Sinop Energia and has to be formally requested” (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2020). This is detrimental to Amazonian culture, a culture of river people whose livelihoods directly depend on water and fishing. Because vegetation in the reservoir was not removed adequately, the vegetation started to rot, releasing methane and leading to the acidification of the water, ultimately resulting in the death of fish and aquatic life (ibid.). Moreover, fish cannot effectively reproduce because the dam disturbed migratory patterns (ibid.). Controversially, the dam was publicly celebrated for its alleged environmental and social responsibility. One of the hydropower companies, CHTP, obtained carbon credits under the UN Clean Development Mechanism and was awarded the Chico Mendes sustainability award, named after a famous eco-warrior (Branford & Torres, 2017, Mongabay). Yet, villagers who continue to protest against the project are increasingly intimidated and surveilled by hydropower companies (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2020).
Agua Zarca, Gualcarque River, Honduras
The territory of the Lenca people of Honduras has been negatively impacted , due to the location of 17 dams on indigenous grounds. The construction of the Agua Zarca dam by DESA commenced in 2013 without the free, prior and informed consent of the Lenca people (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2018). Those community leaders who opposed DESA are continuously intimidated, threatened, persecuted or killed (ibid.). In an anti-Agua Zarca protest in 2013, Tomás García from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) was shot (Both ENDS). In 2016, Bertha Cáceres, also a member of Copinh, and another indigenous leader were assassinated for defending indigenous rights (ibid.). In reaction to these events, investors withdrew and the project was temporarily suspended. However, DESA and the Honduran government intend to complete the project (ibid.).
Tana River hydroelectric power scheme, Kenya
The Tana River in Kenya is currently host to 5 dams, the Masinga, Kamburu, Kindaruma, Gitaru and Kiambere, with more in planning. Due to poor relocation management, displaced persons from the Tana River Basin started to develop informal settlements (Okuku, Bouillon, Ochiewo, Munyi, Kiteresi & Tole, 2015, p. 12). In addition, the local communities were not adequately consulted prior to dam construction. A study by Okuku et. al. (2015) found that only 7% of the inhabitants in the proximity to the Tana were aware that the government approved further hydroelectric projects along the river, like the “Grand Falls” for which construction was about to begin (p. 11). Impact assessments of the Tana dams were insufficient. They neglected impacts on communities not in the direct vicinity of the dam, for instance, downstream communities, where changes resulting from damming eventually caused widespread famine (Okuku et. al., 2015, p. 13). Most communities rely on the ecosystem services provided by River Tana and adjacent land that supports agriculture, livestock, health and fisheries (Overgaauw, Beukering, Papyrakis & Mulwa, 2015, p. 69). Along the Tana, an estimated 115,000 practiced flood recession agriculture, by which natural flooding is used to irrigate farmland. However, since the construction of the dam, the lake’s natural flooding pattern changed which impedes this agricultural practice (Okuku et. al., 2015, p. 12). Disease outbreaks, including malaria and cholera, are also related to the dam reservoirs, which serve as breeding grounds for bacteria and mosquitos (Okuku et. al., 2015, p. 12).
Mambilla dam, Mambilla Plateau, Taraba State, Nigeria
With a capacity of 3,050 megawatts, the Mambilla dam has the largest power potential in the country (Oruonye, 2015, p. 19). Bogged down by corruption, the Mambilla project has still not been completed although initiated back in 1982. So far, there are no efforts to involve civil society in the project (Oruonye, 2015, p. 23). The dam would entail the displacement of an estimated 100,000 people (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2018). Such large-scale movements of people risk exacerbating existing ethno-religious tension and violence over the disputed Mambilla region and worsen the humanitarian situation in Taraba state (ibid.). Competition over land ownership on the Mambilla Plateau, mainly between the Mambilla and Fulani ethnic groups, is already a source of tension (Ebenezer, 2017). According to International Rivers (2008), the dam could also have disastrous environmental and social impacts for those already living in poverty along the Benue River. The proposed dam will entail the flooding of farmlands, loss of forests, settlements and the possibility of new diseases (Oruonye, 2015, p. 23).
The above case studies reveal recurring patterns of environmental and social impacts, and human rights concerns linked to large-scale hydropower projects in developing countries. The most common and concerning impact of dam construction is the relocation of local people living in the area of the dam. This process entails forced displacement, dispossession and the loss of valuable land for the people. In some cases, dams even caused the loss of life.
Environmental impacts on water and land have direct consequences for people’s livelihoods. Such consequences are not only felt by communities on site of the dam but also further downstream of such projects. In almost all cases, water quality, fish diversity and fish stock decreased after the construction of the dams. This deprived many locals of their main basis for subsistence. The logging and flooding of areas for reservoirs contribute to the deterioration of water quality and potentially releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. It can also contribute to the spread of diseases. The loss of valuable forests, used by the local population for agroforestry, imperils food security and sources of income.
Social and Environmental Impact Assessments are often carried out poorly and to serve political or economic interests. Adverse impacts could easily be foreseen and prevented but tend to be overlooked.
Many projects are located in indigenous territory and pose a threat to indigenous ways of life. The loss of important cultural heritage is observed frequently. Nevertheless, dam projects regularly advance without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people, an indigenous right stipulated in the International Labour Convention.
Consultation with and participation of affected communities is poor in all case studies. Many communities oppose projects but face harassment, intimidation and violent repression from private and public actors. Clashes can occur between civil society and public forces, like the police and the military, as well as between communal groups themselves. Hydropower development in conflict zones and disputed areas has long been associated with an increased risk of ethnic conflict.
While hydropower projects incur serious environmental and social costs, they offer little tangible benefits for the local population and society at large. Many projects do not achieve their expected socio-economic objectives.
In view of these findings, projects that are currently proposed, in planning or already under construction have to change practices fundamentally in order to be considered sustainable. Hydropower construction, operation and maintenance has to occur with meaningful consideration given to human rights and environmental and social concerns. To achieve development objectives, the local population must be regarded as the primary beneficiary of dams. Followingly, free, prior and informed consent and consultation and participation of local communities should be basic principles in hydropower projects. Giving affected people the opportunity to negotiate for compensation in advance ensures that they are compensated adequately for their losses (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 431). Furthermore, grievance mechanisms are indispensable to protect the rights of local communities (Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 2016).
Environmental and Social Impact analyses, Cost-Benefit Analyses and Social Life Cycle Analyses offer opportunities to examine potential impacts of forthcoming hydropower projects in the region (Aung et. al., 2021, p. 431). To foresee and prevent adverse impacts on the environment and local communities, companies and governments have to conduct thorough, robust and independent assessments in the interest of citizens and nature (Moran et. al., 2018, p. 11895). Hence, assessments should incorporate community concerns, to design new dams in ways that can improve livelihoods.
Social and environmental considerations have to be reflected in investment as well. Scudder (2011) argues that the World Bank Group, as the biggest sponsor for large dams, should ensure that their funds meet international standards for environmental restoration and compensation to communities (Moran et. al., 2018, p. 11896). The European Investment Bank has set a good example by developing Environmental, Climate and Social guidelines for investment in hydropower. Organizations like the Business and Human Rights Resource Center also play an important role in guiding investors with respect to human rights.
On top of this, hydropower dams can have valuable co-benefits that need to be harnessed. Dams can enhance river ecosystem services or have their own functions for the people such as flood regulation, irrigation and supply of potable water (Overgaauw, et. al., 2015, p. 69). As a result, they can increase crop productivity, improve access to water and maintain fisheries (Moran et. al., 2018, p. 11895). Residents of the river Tana region, for instance, also noted positive effects like the supply of water for domestic use, farming and fishing (Okuku et. al., 2015, p. 9).
Instead of typical megaprojects that produce several thousand megawatts of energy, the United Nations Development Programme encourages the introduction of micro-hydro plants, with smaller turbines or instream technology. Cost-benefit analyses show that micro hydropower produces fewer negative externalities and is largely a net positive for communities with minimal environmental impact (Moran et. al., 2018, p. 11892). However, smaller dams risk no longer being competitive against other sustainable solutions like wind energy. Hence, Moran et. al. (2018), advise diversifying the energy mix by investing in other sources of renewable energy, like solar, biomass and wind, alongside hydropower (p. 11893).
Hydropower is a promising alternative to non-renewable energy. However, climate mitigation cannot come at the expense of environmental health and livelihoods. The above case studies illustrated the violations of the right to life, right to an adequate standard of living, right to food, water, and health and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Furthermore, indigenous rights are often disregarded. The adverse impacts of hydropower projects have been well-known for years but, evidently, the situation has not yet improved. Investors, companies and governments continue with harmful practices without repercussions. Private and public actors have to be held accountable for fulfilling their human rights due diligence in renewable energy projects. Nevertheless, negative environmental and social consequences are not inevitable and can be addressed and remedied to establish hydropower as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. If used in the right way hydropower can produce positive outcomes for communities while being a clean source of energy. To achieve positive outcomes, human rights considerations need to be placed at the core of current and future development projects.
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