Asian countries lead the world today in hydroelectric power generation, with more projected growth in the coming years. In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that global hydropower capacity will double by the year 2040, half of the new development taking place in Asia.
Emerging economies in particular are under extraordinary pressure to harness the power offered by its rivers and other natural resources. But while hydroelectric dams are often hailed as sources of clean energy and economic transformation, they are not without compensation, especially when development takes the form of a series of individual projects without taking into account the cumulative impacts on river systems a whole – and the communities and ecosystems that depend on them.
Asian countries have the opportunity to adopt a new status quo for hydropower development – one that takes into account the potential impacts to communities, regional economies and ecosystems and plotted a path to development that achieves a wider range and balanced of benefits. In doing so, Asia can become a world leader in the development of intelligent hydropower.
The power of rivers
Rivers are incredibly powerful in ways that go beyond electricity generation. Support agriculture, shipping routes, fishing and some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet. These other resources and ecosystems, and all the benefits they confer, can be disrupted by fragmentation caused by hydroelectric dams.
Consider the Mekong, one of the major rivers subjected hydroelectric development in Asia, along with the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers all. Besides having substantial hydropower potential, the Mekong, also supports fisheries that feed tens of millions of people, including produce 80% of the protein consumed by the population of Cambodia. The Mekong could see fish productivity cut in half, however, if a series of dams stem main proposal, which sit on the main trunk of the river is completed. Other rivers are going to face this kind of extreme negative impacts if development of hydropower is not moving towards a more sustainable approach.
Poorly planned hydroelectric dams can have dramatic and irreversible effects on rivers and people and ecosystems that depend on them. Social and environmental impacts result in conflicts around the development of hydropower, which caused delays and project cancellations and increased uncertainty for developers, governments and investors. But there is a better way. Planning at basin or system is a critical first step that governments and developers can take to find development scenarios that allow significant energy production and minimize the impact of rivers, ecosystems and communities. A systems approach aims to compare large-scale alternative development options in advance and identify those that can more effectively balance energy development with protection or improvement of other resources.
Myanmar, with the entry of the new government led by Aung Sun Suu Kyi is a country that has an opportunity to put its hydroelectric development in a better way. Strategic planning large-scale system, from now on, can allow the country to select the investments that hydroelectric deliver the greatest benefits, and recent government measures signal a potential change in approach. Already, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy plans to reevaluate hydropower projects in the light of questions about the social and environmental impacts. This re-evaluation could help the country to ensure low-carbon energy, while protecting one of its most valuable resources – its rivers.
Myanmar rivers are, in fact, a source of wealth for its inhabitants. They provide food, jobs and a reliable source of water for navigation, irrigation and daily life. In fact, freshwater fishing Myanmar produced more than 1.3 million tons of fish per year and employ about 1.5 million people. Myanmar has an urgent need for new energy sources, but the new government has expressed a clear commitment to the search for energy solutions that are sustainable and minimize social and environmental impacts.