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  1. Analysis
July 14, 2022

Why hydropower’s human rights problem may be insurmountable

Long delays and countless human rights abuses make it hard to see hydropower playing a major role in net zero.

By Nick Ferris

In southern Tajikistan, 110km from the country’s capital, Dushanbe, a vast monolith of compacted rock is taking shape in the desert. The 335m tall Rogun dam – the name of the new structure – will be the tallest dam in the world once complete, and its 3.6GW of electricity generation capacity will nearly double the size of the former Soviet state’s existing power network. 

Rogun’s gestation period has been long: first proposed in 1959, construction began in 1976, with efforts paused in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR. Construction recommenced in 2007, with the aim for the project now to be completed by the end of 2029.

It is not only the lengthy building time, or vast size, of this project that boggles the mind, however. The list of human rights abuses associated with this hydropower project is also huge, with numerous allegations against often-powerless communities stretching back for decades.

For starters, some 42,000 people living near the dam site have been forcibly resettled, with a study from the NGO Human Rights Watch showing that the standard of living for many resettled families deteriorated as a result of land loss, lack of jobs and poor access to essential services like schools or a steady water supply. A study released on 6 July from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) also highlights cases of non-payment of wages at the construction site, as well as local communities being forced to buy shares in the project back in 2010 when the development lacked adequate funds, or risk losing their jobs. 

In 2019, a crack in the dam was reported, which experts attributed to the use of low-quality cement, steel and other building materials. The only publicly known audit, carried out in 2016 by Tajikistan’s Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption, revealed financial violations totting up to $19.7m. 

What has happened at Rogun is happening all over the world. Across Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the BHRRC’s report finds a total of 265 recorded human rights and environmental issues relating to 32 large hydropower projects. “The hydropower industry model is broken, creating significant social and environmental costs with apparent impunity,” write the authors. “The evidence of human misery and environmental damage… demands urgent attention from the international banks and investors backing these projects.”

A separate 2019 briefing from the BHRRC finds that renewable energy is the sector with the third most frequent allegations of attacks and intimidation of human rights defenders worldwide, behind agribusiness and mining. In addition, hydropower’s human rights abuse allegations outweigh those of other subsectors.

Of course, large hydropower plants can bring great benefits to communities. A spokesperson from the International Hydropower Association (IHA) told Energy Monitor that hydropower projects can also help communities gain legal status and formal land titles from the government, pointing to another project in Tajikistan, the forthcoming Sebzor Hydropower Project, where this has been the case

Nevertheless, other commentators suggest the impact on communities is net negative and hydropower's human rights abuses are now so expected that new projects will struggle to gain financial backing. Part of the reason Rogun has been so delayed is because it has repeatedly struggled to find investors to back its development over the years, states the BHRRC report.

“There is a huge amount of untapped hydropower potential around the world, but the myriad of controversies that time and again crop up in these projects is making them unattractive for investors,” says Harry Verhoeven, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, US.  

He adds that there is a pattern of benefits being “massively overstated” and costs being significantly understated. “Then there is the long-standing track record of hydropower fostering corruption, displacement, discrimination, racism [and] deliberate targeting of certain people to benefit others,” he says. This comes on top of the emerging concern that completed hydropower projects will not be as effective as planned as a result of climate change affecting weather patterns.

Public finance institutions approached by Energy Monitor – which included the UK’s British International Investment, the US’s International Development Finance Corporation, and Development Finance Institute Canada – all said they carried out extensive due diligence to ensure any hydropower project they invest in can be deemed ethical. A spokesperson for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said it has a “vastly comprehensive mechanism in place to ensure that issues are avoided”. 

A recent policy report from Boston University highlights how China, which has a massive domestic hydropower industry, is picking up slack left by Western financiers less willing to invest in hydropower in recent years. 

However, Verhoeven believes that even the communist superpower, hardly known for its defence of human rights, will become less willing to risk its reputation overseas by investing in hydropower. The country’s long-standing foreign policy principle of ‘non-interference’ in territorial interests and integrity was, for example, recently compromised due to its involvement in North Africa’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which has led to conflict between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan

Case study: India

One country pushing hard for new hydropower is India, a rapidly growing economy that is aiming for 500GW of renewables by 2030 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070. There have historically been long delays in the development of large hydropower projects in India due to complex planning procedures, prolonged land acquisition and resettlement programmes, and issues around financing, notes the International Hydropower Association. In 2019, however, the government officially recognised large hydropower as a renewable power source. This is encouraging new hydropower developments as projects are now able to benefit from the country’s renewable purchase obligation, which requires state power distributors to purchase a certain share of electricity from renewable sources. 

Exclusive data from GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, shows India has the largest hydropower capacity pipeline in the world. This pipeline is made up of everything from projects under construction and nearing completion to those that have simply been announced. 

However, while ambitions for the sector are high, plans need to be considered in the context of hydropower's decades of human rights abuses, which have led to severe project delays and significant loss of life. The myriad of accusations recorded in recent years include the evacuation of villagers with only a few hours’ warning, mass arrestslive rounds of ammunition directed at peaceful dam protestors, and poorly built structures threatening Himalayan communities with environmental catastrophe. Opposition from businesses and other local interests means projects can be held up for years. 

One of the most notorious hydropower projects in the country is the vast Sardar Sarovar Project, which features a 163m-high dam with the third-largest water discharging capacity of any dam in the world and a 1.5GW power generation capacity shared between three different states.

Construction began without the required environmental and social clearances, while an initial estimate of 6,417 families needing to be resettled was eventually revised up to 43,000. They were given varying levels of compensation depending on where they lived and at what point their homes were flooded. Some resettlement sites offered to families were deemed too rocky and hard to cultivate by external observers, while others were forced to accept cash compensation in lieu of land, or receive nothing at all.

The foundation stone of the project was laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, but protests and resulting legal delays meant the dam was not inaugurated until 2017, by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Hydropower projects are supposed to be development projects, but in India they have a terrible track record of targeting the communities they are intended for,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a network of NGOs operating in the region. “The situation is only getting worse, with environmental norms and regulations diluted further every year as the government sees growing environmental and social concerns as a hindrance to development.” 

Increasing human rights concerns and construction times that stretch on for decades are hardly attractive conditions for modern financiers looking at where to put their money. It is for this reason that “we need to be wary of looking at hydropower construction pipelines”, says Verhoeven. “While announcements are exciting to make [...] they often wallow in development stages for decades, with a large number never actually seeing the light of day.”

Solar and wind ultimately offer much cheaper sources of electricity that also have much lower social and environmental costs, says Thakkar. And while it is true that a key benefit of hydropower is that it offers a flexible and reliable form of backup power that can be added to the grid in minutes, “if you look at India's massive existing hydropower capacity, there are no significant examples of dams being used in this way”, Thakkar says.

A route to sustainable hydropower

In the year 2000, in a flurry of post-millennial optimism, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) released a report outlining how sustainable, socially conscious hydropower should be built in the new century. The Commission, which was chaired by Nelson Mandela, offered detailed guidance on how to plan, design, construct, monitor and decommission dams. 

The IHA also launched its own sustainability standard in 2021, a new certification scheme that aims to build trust in the hydropower sector as investors increasingly look towards projects that meet high environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards. 

However, the existence of such guidance does not mean everyone follows it. Few countries or institutions – with the notable exception of the EU – have adopted the WCD’s recommendations as a requirement for new projects. In India, a country that is, on paper, the world’s largest democracy, “not a single major hydropower project has even attempted to follow the WCD framework during development”, says Thakkar.

The IEA’s 2021 hydropower market report states there are currently “less than 30 countries” targeting hydropower in their net-zero plans. The agency says more capacity could be rolled out in emerging markets if “project delays due to environmental and social concerns are kept at a minimum through streamlining approval processes”. In layman’s terms, this sounds like a suggestion that hydropower could turn its current trajectory around by trampling further on human rights. In a world where ESG is increasingly a concern for investors and access to capital for big infrastructure projects will get no easier, it is hard to see hydropower going down this road as a net-zero champion.

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