Last year was a turbulent year for rivers around the world.
After a decade of declines in dam building, the hydropower industry has roared back to life with an unprecedented number of dams proposed or under construction.
The industry is eyeing the world’s great rivers – including the Mekong, the Amazon and the Congo – and global financial institutions, including the World Bank, are behind them. Sound daunting?
The industry is claiming dams are a source of clean energy for a world trying to wean itself off of fossil fuels. (They’re not; more on that later.) Furthermore, dams need predictable rainfall and streamflow, yet severe floods and droughts are arriving with increasing frequency. In some places, hydroelectric dams have had to drastically reduce electrical output because of extreme droughttowns and villages are contending with flood levels rarely seen.
As the climate grows more chaotic, we need functioning rivers more than ever.
What’s a functioning river? One that can filter and distribute water, nurture cropland, provide drinking water, support fish species, and sequester carbon, all just by, well, flowing. Rivers are the sometimes invisible arteries of our planet, and all species – including humans – need them to work.
The good news is that some of the world’s most active dam-builders started to listen in 2015. And there are more signs of hope. Here are some exhilarating rapids (and a few reversals) we faced in 2015:
- The US Congress prohibits US support for large dams in international financial institutions (unless six strict criteria are met), thanks to our work. The dawning of a new era for the 20th century’s biggest dam technology exporter? Yep.
- We travel to Ecuador to identify partners and priority projects. With partners, we agree to prioritize the protection of Cordillera del Condor, a relatively untouched area of high biodiversity.
- Villagers along Cambodia’s Areng River breathe a sigh of relief as the Cambodian government, thanks to pressure from our network, delays the planned Stung Cheay Areng Dam. And the 30+ endangered species that live there? They’re pretty glad, too.
- After analyzing Landsat images, we conclude that the Ethiopian government is filling the reservoir of the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, a tragedy we’ve fought to prevent. We break the news to international media.
- Success! China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection blocks the construction of the Xiaonanhai Dam on the Yangtze River. The win has big implications for China’s other threatened rivers; we provided technical support and publicity to this fight for years.
- We organize the largest-ever International Day of Action for Rivers, with at least 125 actions in 44 countries.
- Our Southeast Asia team takes Thai journalists on a trip to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta so they can learn first-hand about the impact upstream dams will have on the delta. The result? A cascade of articles on the issue in Thai media. And National Geographic, with our support, weighs in on the subject too.
- Ethiopian villagers come to the center of power: We bring a delegation of two female, indigenous Hamer community leaders from Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley to discuss Gibe III with congressional and government officials in Washington DC.
- The World Bank says it will return to building dams after a decade-long hiatus caused by our successful pressure, but we’re ready. We initiate regular strategy calls with other NGOs and launch a series of briefing papers called Lessons Not Learned that rebut Bank claims that dams are clean and green.
- Indigenous groups unite! At an Amazon workshop we co-organize, four indigenous groups – the Munduruku, Kayabi, Apiaka and Ribatska – join forces in an unprecedented alliance to defend their rights against dams proposed for the Teles Pires River in Brazil.
- Our China Team presents the results of the Benchmarking Project at the World Hydropower Congress in Beijing. We also present the report to major Chinese state-owned companies before the official launch.
- The Brazilian Senate introduces a groundbreaking bill, based on advice from our Brazilian campaigner and partners, to ensure transparency and effective socio-environmental safeguards in all Brazilian National Development Bank operations.
- We meet with Bhutan government officials, who assure us they will not consider any more hydropower projects that result in intra-basin or inter-basin water transfers.
- Public launch of the China team’s Benchmarking Report, which ranks the policies and practices of China’s overseas dam builders. It was an unprecedented effort which brought companies, government and dam-affected people to the table. As a result of the report, HydroLancang invites our China and Southeast Asia directors to discuss the proposed Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Beijing, as well as visit the project site and make further recommendations.
- Success! Sarawak’s Chief Minister Adenan places a moratorium on Baram Dam and agrees to listen to villagers’ concerns, thanks to a long campaign and the villagers’ two-year occupation of the dam site. Activists greet the move with cautious optimism.
- We release “Right Priorities for Africa’s Power Sector,” a report that provides an in-depth analyses of dam projects proposed under the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa.
- We celebrate 30 years of fighting for rivers with a team that’s now taking the fight to the frontlines in regional offices in Africa, South Asia, East and Southeast Asia and Latin America.
- We release “Designing Low Carbon Energy Futures for African and Other Developing Countries,” a report that offers a blueprint for how developing countries can integrate massive amounts of solar and wind power into their grids.
- Success! The government of Yunnan Province decides to stop all dam construction on the Nu River, China’s last free-flowing river and a biodiversity hotspot of global importance. We had worked with scientists and partner NGOs to highlight the ecological importance of the Nu for many years.
- We release a manifesto on 10 reasons why dams are not clean energy, and call on world leaders to exclude large dams from climate initiatives. Hundreds of NGOs from 53 countries sign on, and the statement is launched at an event at the climate COP in Paris.