Global hydropower sector takes firm stand on World Heritage Sites

View of the Snowy Hydro site, Australia’s largest hydropower scheme.
View of the Snowy Hydro site, Australia’s largest hydropower scheme.

In a landmark action for the global hydropower sector, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) – representing around 100 public and privately owned developers, operators and manufacturers – has today announced progressive and stringent safeguards for hydropower development in Protected Areas.

An historic IHA no-go commitment on any future development in UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites is accompanied by a duty of care requirement for hydropower companies seeking to build new projects in legally designated Protected Areas.

The new IHA commitments were made following a process of dialogue and engagement with the association’s membership – who collectively manage around a third (450 GW) of worldwide installed hydropower capacity – together with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) among other stakeholders.

Australia is currently represented on the IHA board, with Tammy Chu, Managing Director of Entura power and water consulting firm (part of the Hydro Tasmania Group) serving as one of the non-profir association’s six Vice Presidents. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a board member of the International Hydropower Association and Co-Chair of the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower.

The announcement was made on 6 September 2021 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille by IHA Chief Executive Eddie Rich, which takes place on the eve of the World Hydropower Congress, to be hosted online with the Government of Costa Rica between 7-24 September.

“Hydropower can bring huge benefits as a low-carbon source of electricity, providing clean storage for solar and wind power and helping to protect energy systems against blackouts. Billions of tonnes of carbon emissions are avoided every year by using hydropower instead of fossil fuels. As with any infrastructure project, however, even the construction of a renewable energy project may bring impacts to the local environment that must be mitigated,” said Mr Rich.

“We believe that renewable energy projects in Protected Areas should meet the highest performance standards and clearly demonstrate how they offer net-benefits to the wider environment. World Heritage Sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List and so require additional protections such as this no-go policy for hydropower to protect them for future generations.”

Under the duty of care commitment for Protected Areas, IHA’s members must implement high standards of performance and transparency when affecting Protected Areas, as well as candidate Protected Areas and corridors between Protected Areas. This should be demonstrated through a systematic application of the Hydropower Sustainability Tools or certification against the forthcoming Hydropower Sustainability Standard, to be launched on 8 September 2021.

Responding to the announcement, Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre said the new IHA commitment was a major step forward by the hydropower industry.

“The new IHA commitment is a major step forward by the hydropower industry in ensuring that hydropower projects do not affect World Heritage sites. The new commitment is in line with the established position of the World Heritage Committee, that the construction of dams with large reservoirs within the boundaries of properties is incompatible with their World Heritage status,” Ms Rössler said.

“We also look forward to continue our dialogue with IHA in order to ensure that through the implementation of the duty of care commitment, impacts of hydropower projects outside World Heritage sites but situated within the watershed can also be avoided.”

Australia’s hydropower resources are largely concentrated in the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania, the latter of which is heavily reliant on hydro for its electricity generation.

Hydropower is currently Australia’s largest contributor to renewable energy. In 2016, it provided 42 per cent of total renewable electricity supplied and seven per cent of Australia’s total electricity.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, which spans both New South Wales and Victoria, is Australia’s largest hydropower scheme, consisting of 16 major dams and nine power stations with a combined capacity of 4,100 MW.

A proposal by the New South Wales Government to raise the height of the Warragamba dam is currently being closely watched by the World Heritage Committee  with the New South Wales Government asked by UNESCO to submit the environmental impact study to assess the $1 billion-plus project’s potential impacts on the Blue Mountains region.

Plans for construction of the proposed 180MW Franklin Dam or Gordon-below-Franklin Dam on the Gordon River in Tasmania were axed in 1982 after it was challenged by one of the most significant environmental campaigns in Australian history. The proposed construction would have subsequently impacted upon the environmentally sensitive Franklin River, which joins the Gordon nearby. During the campaign against the dam, both areas were listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Area register.

The 2021 World Hydropower Congress, 7-24 September, brings together industry, governments, multilateral and financial institutions, civil society and community groups to set priorities for future hydropower development. The online, free-to-access event will showcase how sustainable hydropower – the world’s largest renewable energy source – is part of the solution to climate change.

Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), this is an opportunity to hear how the massive roll-out of solar and wind power is dependent on the clean generation, storage and grid resilience services offered by sustainable hydropower.

The IHA commitments on Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites will be presented at a dedicated World Hydropower Congress session on 21 September, when a new IHA How-to Guide on Hydropower and Protected Areas is to be launched.

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