Johannesburg Summit Endorses Business as Usual for River Destroyers
The outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development will do nothing to halt the rapid degradation of the world’s rivers and the impoverishment of the communities who directly depend on them. Rampant dam building, pollution, bad farming practices, channelization, deforestation, urban sprawl, and climate change are sickening the rivers of the world. The agreements made at the WSSD at best fail to rein in the forces destroying rivers, and at worst encourage them.
Current patterns of energy consumption are the single major cause of global environmental problems. If there had been political will at the WSSD to reverse ecological degradation and improve energy supplies to the poor, the governments would have agreed a bold plan for shifting subsidies from fossil fuels, nuclear and hydro to energy efficiency and conservation and new renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
Instead, the so-called “Plan of Implementation” states that countries should “diversify energy supply by developing advanced, cleaner, more efficient, affordable and cost-effective energy technologies, including fossil fuel technologies and renewable energy technologies, hydro included . . ” (Para 19(e)). Encouraging the use of hydro and fossil fuels, which already make up more than 90% of the world’s primary energy supply, will offer no diversification benefits and will only worsen environmental problems, including the destruction of rivers.
Hydropower is not an advanced technology, having changed little since the 1930s. It is not clean, as it worsens water quality and destroys riverine biodiversity. Rotting organic matter in reservoirs, especially in the tropics, can emit high amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Large hydropower is rarely affordable and cost-effective: big dams are extremely expensive to build and often fail to meet their generation targets. Hydropower is highly vulnerable to the increased floods and droughts caused by global warming. Most hydropower plants are not renewable as their reservoirs will ultimately fill with sediments.
International Rivers believes that only small hydro plants that meet the requirements of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) should be defined as renewable.
Brazilian negotiators had pushed for a target of 10% of the world’s energy to be produced from renewables by 2010, with large hydro to be excluded from the definition. Norway supported this position. The EU, which supported a target of 15%, wanted to include large hydro. India, China and Russia also strongly favored the definition of large hydro as renewable.
Brazil put forward a compromise position that renewable energy could include dams that are WCD-compliant or which do not damage the environment. This position was also rejected.
In the end, pressure from the US and OPEC ensured that no renewable targets were adopted in the Plan of Implementation.
Many commentators have claimed that the Summit made important progress in the areas of water supply and sanitation. International Rivers welcomes the agreement on goals for halving those without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Yet there is nothing in the “Plan of Implementation” or in the government and corporate rhetoric at the summit to suggest that the necessary resources, commitment and approaches to meeting the targets will be forthcoming.
It must be noted that the international community has repeatedly set itself ambitious goals on water and sanitation and failed to meet them. In 1981 the UN set a target to provide universal drinking water and sanitation by 1990. In 1990, the World Summit for Children called for universal coverage by 1995. Agenda 21, agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, suggested that by 2000 all urban residents should have access to safe water and 75% of urban residents have adequate sanitation by 2000.
The Bush Administration has rightly been widely criticized as the worst environmental rogue nation and chief culprit for the Summit’s failure. Yet many other governments and international bodies are also to blame for being driven by short-term self-interest, a lack of vision and subservience to corporate greed. A massive upsurge in pressure from the grassroots is needed to change the policies that are destroying rivers, and are entrenching the dead grip of poverty and environmental destruction upon our planet.
There were however some rays of hope to shine out of Johannesburg. International Rivers welcomes the joint declaration on renewable energy issued at the end of the summit by the EU, Brazil and other European and Latin American states. The brief declaration expresses the countries’ strong commitment to renewables and states that the signatories “will work together to substantially increase the global share of renewable energy sources . . . on the basis of clear and ambitious time bound targets . . .”
International Rivers also welcomes the agreement between Brazilian and South African public water service providers organizations which seeks to improve provision of water and sanitation to the poor in Brazil and South Africa. The South African-Brazilian public-public partnership is also intended to help public water utilities elsewhere to improve their services, especially to the very poorest.
International Rivers will strive to ensure that the only form of hydropower that receives subsidies aimed at mitigating climate change is small hydro compliant with the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams. We will also continue our work of strengthening and broadening the diverse and dynamic movement of grassroots groups fighting to save and restore rivers.