hydropower

By Joao Costa, senior sustainability specialist at the International Hydropower Association (IHA)

How can Africa use sustainability guidelines to maximise its vast hydropower resources? Besides producing much-needed clean, affordable and reliable electricity, hydropower also offers vital water supply and irrigation services, including protection against floods and drought.

In addition, it is highly effective at rapidly responding to changes in power demand, thus improving grid stability and supporting intermittent renewable energies like solar and wind.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Despite its vast resources, only around 30% of Africa’s population currently has access to electricity. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that hydropower continues to be the energy of choice for the continent’s emerging economies where there is significant untapped potential coupled with positive economic growth prospects. According to a recent survey of IHA members, a third of respondents (35%) said they expect Africa to be the fastest growing world region for hydropower development over the next decade.

As with any engineering infrastructure, a hydropower project provides an interface between society and environment. By building a dam across a river, or just diverting some of its flowing water, such projects inevitably change existing conditions. In other words, hydro development results in both benefits and impacts, and these may not always be easy to grasp. The challenge for the sector, in Africa and worldwide, is to carefully assess and manage these impacts.

Many African countries have constraints, particularly related to institutional capacity, to ensure that hydropower assets deliver sustainable developmental benefits locally and regionally. The limited scope of local training provision, the lack of a structured framework to measure a project’s performance, and insufficient awareness of international good practices can all have an impact. In turn, this may lead to inadequate management of environmental and social aspects, and more limited developmental benefits.

To meet this challenge, a multi-stakeholder coalition of industry, civil society, governments and financial institutions has developed a set of new sustainability guidelines, which should spur the development of sustainable hydropower, not just in Africa, but also around the globe. Titled Hydropower Sustainability Guidelines on Good International Industry Practice (HGIIP), the guide offers developers and operators, investors and regulators internationally recognised definitions of what constitutes good practice in hydropower development.

The guidelines were launched in December 2018 by the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Council, comprising representatives of a hundred organisations, and the International Hydropower Association (IHA). Covering 26 dedicated topics, including social and environmental issues like management, dam safety, economic viability, resettlement, sedimentation and water quality, among other topics, the guidelines form the normative document on how sustainability practice should be defined and measured in the hydropower sector.

The definitions that have emerged were agreed through a collaborative multi-stakeholder process which began with the publication of the first IHA Sustainability Guidelines in 2004, leading to the formation of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum between 2008 and 2010, which delivered the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), launched in 2011.

The guidelines today offer the most detailed descriptions of accepted international practice in the hydropower industry and are intended to be used in a variety of settings, either individually or as a compendium. They have been developed to bring definition to the processes and outcomes that constitute good international industry practice for topics relevant to preparing, implementing and operating hydropower projects.

The sector now has a suite of tools to harmonise understanding of sustainability in a hydropower context. Using the Hydropower Sustainability Guidelines together with two complementary performance assessment and measurement tools – the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), and the Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool (HESG), the latter of which was launched in July 2018 – will help project proponents to identify any sustainability issues and bring forward actions to address them in the shortest possible timeframe.

The former, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, takes into account all the 26 guideline topics and measures performance above and below defined good practice; this enables projects to benchmark their performance in a comprehensive way. In addition, the Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool can be used to check for gaps against good practice on targeted topics and includes a gap management plan to improve processes and outcomes.

Take the topic of climate change mitigation and resilience as an example of the value-add provided by each guideline. Hydropower systems are characterised by their longevity and are traditionally designed on the basis of long-term historical hydrological data and forecasts. Hydropower projects are, nonetheless, susceptible to the impacts of climate change due to their dependency on precipitation and runoff, and exposure to extreme weather events. For example, changes in the timing or seasonality of rainfall and subsequent stream flows could impact operations and expected revenues, depending on the seasonal pattern of energy demand or competing water uses.

In this regard, the guidelines provide details of what good practice looks like, explaining how a combination of analytical climate science and hydropower engineering to incorporate climate risk management into hydropower project design, construction and operation, could make a project more resilient.

The publication of the guidelines marks a major landmark for African hydropower development. Crucially for new projects, organisations can reference compliance with the guidelines in contractual arrangements; lenders and investors can reference them in their terms of agreement; while markets and labelling systems can specify them in their eligibility requirements. Their release is a game-changer, which will help to ensure that new hydropower projects in Africa are developed according to the highest possible standards, for the benefit of generations to come.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

About the author

João Costa takes a leading role in delivering training and managing capacity-building projects to drive sustainable hydropower development worldwide. He has previously worked as a civil engineer and holds an MPhil in engineering for sustainable development from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in civil engineering from Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisbon. The IHA is an association partner of ESI Africa. www.hydropower.org