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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 41, New Delhi, Sept 25, 2021

A Declaration: Climate mitigation efforts must reject so-called “sustainable hydropower” as a solution to combat climate change

Saturday 25 September 2021


September 21, 2021


  • Alok Sharma, the 2021 President of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties
  • Parties to the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP-26)

On behalf of 300 organizations from 69 countries, representing civil society, peoples movements, Indigenous Peoples organizations, scientists, conservationists, we call upon Alok Sharma, the 2021 President of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP-26), and all parties to COP-26, to reject attempts by the hydropower industry to secure scarce climate funds to finance a new wave of hydropower projects. Funding hydroelectric power construction would not only fail to prevent catastrophic climate change, it would also worsen the climate crisis by exploding methane emissions and diverting scarce climate funds away from meaningful energy and water solutions in a world that is already grappling with severe impacts of climate change.

We call instead for just and sustainable solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises that recognize and support the role of natural systems and free-flowing rivers in promoting climate resiliency and mitigation and center the invaluable role of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities on the frontlines of these crises.

We are facing an unprecedented threat posed by the global climate crisis. In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we are already experiencing severe climate impacts in every region of the globe and we are likely too late to hold maximum global temperature increase to 1.5?C, as called for in the 2015 Paris Accords. The report detailed, however, the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to bring down global temperatures in order to stave off worsening and irreversible impacts. The report further called for curbing methane emission as among the most immediate, effective and practical steps to quickly reduce temperatures in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, at the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity COP in Kunming, China, the parties will discuss how to respond to the dramatic and precipitous biodiversity loss and the acute threat of ecosystem collapse that could dwarf the loss of biological diversity experienced to date.

At the same time, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic speaks to the need to protect ecosystems and river-based food systems while challenging us to avoid the same mistakes in the economic recovery that led us to these simultaneous crises. We must heed this moment and use it as an overdue opportunity to build resilience in our communities and in the natural world.

Unfortunately, this is happening against a backdrop where the hydropower industry is gearing up for a massive greenwashing effort to present its destructive product – which has been shown time and again to destroy ecosystems and communities – as the pathway out of our predicaments. The industry is enlisting national governments and global organizations in its efforts to resuscitate the waning hydropower sector plagued by unfavorable economics, declining opportunities, community opposition, aging infrastructure, and climate vulnerability. This industry has already shown its deadly impact, creating decades of impoverishment in riparian communities, particularly for Indigenous Peoples whom we know to be the best guardians of natural resources, and precipitating the rapid decline in freshwater biodiversity.

We expect this industry to make polished appeals under the guise of sustainability – a goal upon which they have consistently failed to deliver – but this time with an apparent acknowledgment of the harms they have caused in the past. We ask that you view these overtures with healthy skepticism. It is of grave concern that this industry, which has caused so much harm, including extinctions, endangerment, violence, forced displacement, and impoverishment, is now positioning itself as a climate savior, in order to lobby for climate funds to bankroll a new wave of hydropower expansion. This is the definition of business as usual, and is the very thing we must escape to make true progress on addressing the climate crisis.

We base our call on the following:

Free-flowing rivers and natural lakes have immense value for the welfare of the ecosystems they sustain, humankind, and survival on the planet. Rivers can also play a central, often spiritual and cultural role for many Indigenous riparian communities. These life-giving systems are being destroyed by growing pressure from a variety of sources, chief among them hydropower dams. Urgent removal of these pressures is necessary to protect the immense benefits these waterways provide.
Rivers play a vital role in sequestering carbon and building climate resiliency, yet hydropower dams prevent rivers from serving these critical functions. Rivers help regulate an increasingly volatile global carbon cycle by drawing an estimated 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year. Dams, however, block the natural carbon sequestrations cycle of watersheds. Healthy rivers and their catchments are also critical to building climate resilience by reducing the impacts of floods and droughts, recharging groundwater supplies, sustaining fisheries, maintaining local ecosystems, and transporting sediment and nutrients downstream. Dams interrupt these processes, prompting erosion and coastal flooding, further reducing ecosystem resiliency, undermining food security for people, causing population displacement, and risking conflict with downstream neighbors.

Hydropower dams are vulnerable to climate change and will be further impacted by changing hydrology. Our climate and hydrological cycles are changing, but hydropower dams are particularly ill-suited to adapt to these changes. Unprecedented floods exacerbated by climate change are already threatening the safety of dams around the world, with more extreme weather events elevating the risk of catastrophic dam collapse. Meanwhile, increasing and prolonged droughts are causing dam reservoirs to run dry, with hydropower-dependent energy systems facing extended power disruptions that have entailed significant knock-on economic impacts. These trends are predicted to only worsen in coming decades.

Adding more dams will exacerbate methane emissions at precisely the time IPCC warns they must be dramatically reduced. Hydropower reservoirs are a significant contributor to the climate crisis, primarily through emitting vast quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent in the near term than carbon dioxide. Despite efforts by the hydropower industry to obscure the GHG footprint of dams, dam reservoirs are estimated to emit 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, and scientists have found in some cases that dam reservoirs can emit more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants. Methane emissions from dams are typically much higher in the first years of operation, and thus new dams would contribute to a spike in emissions at the precise moment the IPCC urgently warns that we must drastically cut methane emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

Expanding hydropower is incompatible with efforts to address the looming biodiversity crisis. While they account for less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, freshwater ecosystems are home to more than 10% of all species. There is growing recognition of the immense benefits that freshwater ecosystems provide, as well as growing urgency to address the considerable threats that they face. Hydropower dams are a key culprit in the rapid 84% decline in the populations of freshwater species experienced since 1970. Meanwhile, a recent study found that over 500 dams are currently under construction or planned within protected areas such as national parks, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and wildlife reserves that include nearly half of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas. An expansion of hydropower would further jeopardize efforts to address the biodiversity crisis, including through the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The construction of hydropower dams routinely violates the human rights of impacted communities, particularly Indigenous Peoples. The hydropower industry has a long history of human rights violations, with many companies and financiers never held to account. Over 20 years ago, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) estimated that dams had displaced up to 80 million people, and that number is likely significantly higher today. Dams have also negatively affected an estimated 472 million people living downstream. Dams have particularly impacted Indigenous Peoples, violating their rights to lands, territories, resources, governance, cultural integrity and free, prior and informed consent. These impacts persist today despite the efforts of the hydropower industry to promote its own brand of “sustainability tools” to divert attention from its poor track record.

Climate finance has the potential to play a critical role in ensuring positive outcomes for rivers and for energy access. It should prioritize projects that restore and promote the health of riverine ecosystems and communities. This could include: protecting threatened freshwater resources; restoring flows that facilitate reconnection of fragmented ecosystems; ensuring cultural and environmental flows determined in consultation with affected peoples; and promoting river restoration efforts such as the decommissioning of obsolete dams. Meanwhile, better energy options exist that obviate the need for new hydropower. In most instances, these options cost less, are more equitable, can be developed more sustainably, come to market faster, and be deployed more quickly to displace fossil fuels.

In recognition of the foregoing, we the undersigned call for:

  • A prohibition of funds committed under the Paris Agreement for the construction of new hydropower dams.
  • Countries to remove new hydropower dams from their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
  • A just and sustainable energy transition and economic recovery that centers people and ecosystems.
  • Investment to rapidly upscale truly renewable energy sources capable of delivering needed energy access while transitioning away from destructive fossil fuels and hydroelectric dams.
  • Removal of destructive and obsolete dams that inhibit ecosystem processes (including carbon sequestration), providing additional benefits of spurring resilience and food security.
  • Upgrading or refurbishing existing dams where economically feasible, not disruptive to ecosystems and river communities, and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples has been granted.
  • Enhanced energy conservation and efficiency measures, along with upgrades to electrical grids to lessen the demand for energy.
  • Permanent protections that prohibit dam construction on free-flowing rivers and most vital freshwater ecosystems.


Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)
Burma River Network
Coalition des OSC pour le Suivi des Reformes et de l’Action Publique (CORAP), Democratic Republic of Congo
Comunidades SETAA/Movimiento Ríos Vivos, Colombia
Ecosistemas, Chile
Earth Thrive
Fundacion Yumana, Colombia
Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI)
Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG)
Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)
International Rivers
Justiça Ambiental, Mozambique
Karen Environmental Social Action Network (KESAN)
Karen Rivers Watch
Ríos to Rivers
Rivers without Boundaries
Save the Mekong Coalition
Save the Salween Network
Save the Tigris
South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)
Waterkeeper Alliance

and others

[As on September 21, 2021 the above Declaration has been signed by 297 organizations (listed at this link ]

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