World Hydropower Congress Highlights: The Push for Sustainable Hydropower

Last month, in Bali, experts gathered at the World Hydropower Congress to talk seriously about what’s next for hydropower. They aimed to double how much power we get from water by 2050 while keeping it green. But, they hit a snag: they saw the tough spots and mixed messages in hitting these big goals.

The Need for Sustainable Hydropower

  • Sustainable Development Goal: It was emphasized that only sustainable hydropower, as defined by the Hydropower Sustainability Standard, is acceptable moving forward. This standard, although somewhat ambiguous, serves as a benchmark for sustainable development.
  • Doubling Hydropower Capacity: To meet worldwide climate and energy goals, we need much more hydropower. We’re aiming to crank it up to twice what we have now by 2050. But this isn’t a walk in the park; it’s a big deal, with lots of environmental, social, and money stuff to think about.

    Contradictions and Challenges

Environmental and Social Impact

  • Future Concerns: The ambition to double hydropower capacity raises serious questions about sustainability. Can this expansion be achieved without exacerbating the already significant environmental and social impacts?
  • Historical Impact: Hydropower has been around for a long time. Over the last 100 years, it’s caused problems for rivers, natural habitats, and people living nearby. Building dams and storage lakes has forced lots of folks to move away, and animals that need rivers to live have suffered.

Financial Risks

  • Project Uncertainties: Hydropower projects are notorious for delays and cost overruns. These uncertainties translate into financial risks for governments, developers, and investors.

Defining Sustainability

  • Project vs. System Scale: The Hydropower Sustainability Standard, focusing on individual projects, might not fully capture the broader impacts of hydropower development. Sustainable hydropower requires system-scale planning that considers cumulative impacts and multi-benefit synergies.

System-Scale Planning: A Solution

  • Holistic Approach: System-scale planning, considering the entire energy system, can minimize negative impacts and manage risks more effectively. This approach ensures that projects are chosen based on their overall benefit, integrating hydropower into a broader energy strategy.
  • Alternatives and Innovations: The potential of pumped storage hydropower, which can balance the grid without extensive damming, illustrates the need for innovative approaches within the hydropower sector.

Upcoming Discussions

Environmental and Social Impacts

  • Historical Legacy: Understanding the environmental and social ramifications of past hydropower projects is crucial. We will examine how the displacement of communities and the impact on river ecosystems have shaped current attitudes and policies.
  • Future Projections: As we consider doubling hydropower capacity, it is imperative to assess the potential future impacts on biodiversity, river health, and local communities. This analysis will explore whether sustainable development is achievable under these projected expansions.

Economic Implications

  • Risk Assessment: We’ll closely examine the economic dangers that come with hydropower projects, things like going over budget and taking longer than planned. The goal is to shed light for governments, builders, and those putting in the money on whether these projects make financial sense and how to keep risks low.
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis: We’re also going to dive into judging if the financial gains from using water power stack up against the damage to the environment and society. This review is super important for decision-makers and interested parties when they think about putting money into water power projects in the times ahead.

System-Scale Benefits

  • Community and Environmental Focus: The first of these posts will highlight how system-scale planning can benefit local communities and the environment. We’ll explore case studies where this approach has led to more balanced and equitable outcomes.
  • Advantages for Stakeholders: Subsequent posts will address how governments, developers, and investors can benefit from system-scale approaches. By managing risks more effectively, these approaches can lead to more sustainable and economically viable hydropower projects.

Resolving Contradictions

  • Bridging the Gap: The final part of our series will focus on reconciling the contradiction between the need for large-scale hydropower expansion and the sustainability standards applied at the project level. We’ll discuss innovative ideas and potential reforms to the Hydropower Sustainability Standard.
  • Towards System-Scale Sustainability: This segment will propose ways to enhance the Standard to better reflect system-scale considerations, thereby fostering a more comprehensive understanding and implementation of sustainable hydropower practices.


The goal of doubling global hydropower capacity by 2050, while meeting sustainability standards, presents a complex challenge. Balancing the necessity of expanding hydropower with environmental, social, and economic concerns is paramount. Through careful planning, exploring alternatives, and adopting system-scale strategies, a sustainable path forward can be charted. For more insights into the complexities of sustainable hydropower development, explore this detailed analysis.

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