Greenwashing Hydropower

06/16/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

When I was in fifth grade, we spent a week at the Marmorera Dam in the Swiss Alps, where we learned about the wonders of hydropower, the "white gold" of Switzerland. I loved the cute village which had been rebuilt on the reservoir, and admired how the 91 meter high earthen dam had been planted with grass and pine trees. Years later I learned how the affected families had been cheated when they were resettled, and how their community has remained scarred ever since. When I see the dam's green cover now, it reminds me of how dam builders often try to hide the problems of their projects.

Today, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) has launched a new global effort to greenwash hydropower. The Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol is a voluntary tool which dam builders can use to assess the social and environmental performance of their projects. The protocol is a scorecard through which consultants can evaluate hydropower projects against a long list of criteria.

In principle, it is positive if dam builders want to learn more about the sustainability of their projects. Yet their new approach is beset by fundamental problems:

• No bottom line: The new protocol does not define any bottom lines of acceptability. It does not require that projects comply with national law, international conventions or existing social and environmental standards to be rated as sustainable. The IHA considers awarding every project that has undergone an assessment a "sustainable hydropower" logo, no matter how well or badly it scores in the evaluation. Companies which work with the association on the protocol can call themselves "Sustainability Partners." They include Sarawak Energy Berhad -- the company that reportedly wants to build 12 dams in the rainforest of Borneo. These are typical examples of corporate greenwashing.

• Weakening existing standards: Even though the protocol does not define any social or environmental bottom lines, the dam industry is trying to gain access to carbon credits and public subsidies for projects that have undergone an assessment. The IHA is lobbying behind the scenes to replace the stricter standards which projects currently have to meet to access carbon credits -- particularly the framework of the independent World Commission on Dams -- with its new soft approach.

• Industry control: The new protocol and the assessment of specific projects are controlled by the dam industry. Assessors will need to get licensed by the IHA, and will be paid by the owners of the projects they assess. The owners will control the program of the assessors and the information which they will see. And they only need to publish the findings if they like them. There is no independence in the whole process. When an assessor evaluated the Teesta V Dam in Northeast India in a test run for the new protocol, she studied a lot of documents prepared by the dam builder but did not visit the affected indigenous people because they live a two-hour walk away from the dam site. This is a telling example of how affected people are being excluded from the industry-led process.

The new protocol was launched at a glitzy conference in Brazil today. My colleague Zachary Hurwitz joined a protest at the event that was organized by activists affected by the Belo Monte and Itaipu dams. "Dam builders are welcome to strengthen their social and environmental performance," Zachary said at the conference. "But we won't accept that binding standards are replaced by voluntary scorecards and industry self-regulation."

The giant Belo Monte Dam on a tributary of the Amazon is a case in point. The project is going forward even though it violates numerous laws and conditions of its installation license, and cheaper alternatives exist. Brazil's public prosecutors have challenged the project with 11 lawsuits in the courts. Such projects don't need to be assessed by industry consultants against a voluntary protocol. They need to be stopped.

Forty years after my visit to the Marmorera Dam in the Swiss Alps, I continue to believe that hydropower projects can be a responsible source of our electricity supply. But they need to be based on a balanced assessment of all available options, the full participation of affected communities in the decision-making process, strict social and environmental guidelines, and public oversight. Greenwashing and industry self-regulation won't do the trick. International Rivers will monitor how the new protocol is being used, and will support local communities and NGOs so they can stand up for their rights when they are confronted with big dam projects.