Almost two thirds of globally installed hydropower (12.5GW) was added in China, where hydropower capacity reached 370 GW, wind power – 280 GW and photovoltaic – 250 GW. In 2020 most of increase accounts for completion of a giant 10 GW Wudongde Dam and greater addition is expected in 2021-23 due to completion of the 16 GW Baihetan dam on upper Yangtze River (Jinshajiang). As a result of 50 years of dam building and poorly coordinated development the ecosystem of the Yangtze River is in crisis and many of its 250 fish species face decline and extinction. The giant Chinese paddlefish was recognized as extinct due to dam construction and overfishing. In 2020 China adopted a special law on conservation of Yangtze River, but hydropower companies lobbied to remove prohibition on new dam building, present in early drafts.
Responding to the UNESCO inquiry on hydropower plans near “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan” protected area, China confirmed that damming plans for Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers will proceed “as planned”, which means further encroachment into fragile mountainous areas and retention of greater water volume in reservoirs with detrimental effects for downstream ecosystems. In late 2020 China also revealed a plan to develop 60 GW hydropower dam in Tibet on Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River right before it leaves for India and Bangladesh. Such plans create extreme tensions between countries and may destroy traditional lifestyle of indigenous minorities.
In 2020 China installed 48 GW of photovoltaics and 73 GW of wind capacity. The annual increase from wind power generation exceeded that from hydropower despite extreme floods on major rivers of the country. Already having the greatest hydropower fleet China, obviously, could substitute new hydropower construction by less destructive alternatives, but it still plans building new dams on transboundary watercourses to strengthen its strategic advantage over downstream neighbours.
With 2.5GW added capacity, Turkey holds the second place in hydropower installation in 2020, largely due to putting in full operation the infamous Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River. The project blocks the Tigris River, destroying important biodiversity and displacing up to 50,000 people, the majority of whom are ethnic Kurds. It submerged the ancient town of Hasankeyf, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements and threatens water security of Iraq as well as the Mesopotamia Marshes World Heritage. Turkey repeatedly creates artificial water scarcity to pressure and intimidate its downstream neighbours in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Iraq. In Syria this led to dysfunction of hydropower plant on the Euphrates.
Laos put on line phase II dams of the Ou River cascade, the Nam Ou #1, 3 and 4 dams. The cascade has been developed under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangement, and PowerChina will operate the dams for 25 years before handing them back to the Laos State Electricity Corporation (EDL). The construction of the dams has been controversial for the loss of biodiversity and sources of food in the river basin. Resettlement is also an ongoing, difficult process, even according to Lao media reports. Hydropower cascade on the Ou River together with Luang Prabang Hydro being built on the main stem of Mekong also may negatively affect the Luang Prabang World Heritage city at the confluence of those two dammed rivers.
Altogether, the country installed in 2020 anywhere from 0.5 to 1.3 GW in the Mekong River basin, which unique ecosystem it purposefully destroys in an attempt to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”. However, instead of a triumph, the country in 2020 faced prospects of a debt-default and declining demand for its energy from irritated riparian neighbours. In 2020 Laos was forced to cede the EDL into concession to a China Southern Grid Co. This demonstrates that over-development of hydropower mega-projects may lead to partial loss of sovereignty by smaller states.
In January 2021 Minster of Energy of India declared that the reason for delay in hydropower construction is civil society movements sabotaging development of the country…
India, according to both IRENA and IHA, installed 480 MW or less than 3% of 20 GW it hopes to add by 2030. However, India’s own official statistics shows addition only of 399 MW. The largest new facilities put on-line were the 300 MW Kameng HEP in Arunachal Pradesh, a project associated with significant corruption, fraud and massive cost\time overruns. Another addition – the 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari Hydro – comes with questionable environmental clearance and is also facing a tunnel leakage issue. This project was massively damaged in the June 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, which, unfortunately, has not served a lesson to responsible agencies. In 2020 – early 2021 many people were killed in several accidents, greatest of them being a new catastrophic landslide in Uttarakhand, affecting many dams under construction in an area which scientist long before declared off-limits of large infrastructure development. The IHA reports that the Government also granted approval to proceed with the giant Dibang project (2,880 MW), which is predicted to cause major destruction of biodiversity and violation of human rights.
Responding to a “Covid-19 vigil” initiated by the Prime Minister of India, who encouraged households to switch their lights on and off, hydropower producers had to ramp down and up within seconds to support the unprecedented 31 GW shift in electricity demand. Fortunately this reckless authoritarian experiment has not caused any major failures, but it has not been effective in preventing spread of COVID either.
With a pledge to reach 23% of RE share by 2030 the Indonesian government has clearly disadvantageous focus on hydropower, which creates many new conflicts with biodiversity conservation objectives and well-being of local communities. Among 236 MW added in 2020 the largest project is 120 MW “Poso Peaker Hydro” on the island of Sulawesi, where the company belonging to the family of the former Vice-President Joseph Kalla is degrading the unique ancient lake Poso – a cradle of freshwater biodiversity and depriving local communities of their traditional fisheries and cultural monuments. On the island of Sumatra the government vehemently supports construction of a Batang-Toru Hydro by Zhefu Holdings and Power China-Sinohydro, which may wipe-out newly-discovered ape species –Tapanuli orangutan from the only known habitat.
In 2020 Pakistani military construction company started cooperation with Chinese SOEs and consortium of western consultants-enablers to develop the Diamer Basha Dam, which is the largest and likely the most controversial project in the transboundary Indus River basin. A 100 MW Gulpur Project was completed on the Poonch River, was once considered the most ecologically sensitive river in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir, which makes a dam siting in a Masheer national park completely not justifiable. Nevertheless the IFC, ADB and other international players heavily invested in this private-public partnership project and claimed that resulting design helps to achieve “net biodiversity gain in critical habitat” (based on condition “if everything goes as prescribed”). This bad precedent provided excuse for further sacrifice of similar “critical habitat” in the Kunhar River near Balakot City, where in 2020 loan were granted by the ADB and AIIB to finance construction of a 300 MW hydropower plant.
Nepal likely has the largest ratio of stalled hydropower projects per unit GDP. It was hit hard by COVID-19 lockdown, because it depends heavily on Chinese and Indian labor and technology to build hydro. Hydropower construction severely affects indigenous people of the mountains and charismatic wildlife, including freshwater Gangetic dolphins. The country is trapped by hydropower lobby that effectively prevents diversification in solar and other RE badly needed by local economy.
Georgia added a 178MW Shuakhevi Hydro, developed by Norwegian “Clean Energy Invest” and Indian “Tata-Power”. Actually this plant was completed in 2017, but collapsed right after the start of operations due to malfunction of the plant’s derivation tunnels, which pass through local villages. At least three other projects collapsed or failed during the last decade. Poorly planned projects stalled by popular wrath dot the landscape, but the government moves on marketing new river stretches to new foreign developers. The latest massive protest campaign against the Namakhvani dam cascade built by the same Norwegian company and Turkish firm ENKA on Rioni River has resulted in halt in construction in March 2021 and 30000-strong anti-government manifestations in the city of Kutaisi located downstream from the planned dam. This construction also has potential conflict with a World heritage property downstream.
According to IRENA, Austriainstalled 550 MW, from those 333 MW came in mixed hydro\pumped storage facilities. In 2020 WWF-Austria and other groups protested against illegal construction of the Tumpen-Habichen Power Plant built on the free flowing Ötztaler Ache River, which started in secrecy under cover of Corona virus curfews, while legal complaints were still pending.
Norwegian Statcraft completed the 197 MW Moglice project as a part of a cascade on one of the last free-flowing rivers of Europe. The European Commission urged the country to diversity its power portfolio, saying its dependence on hydropower could have severe consequences for the power supply during times of drought. After the Energy Community sent a legal inquiry on the HPP Pocem project awarded to a Turkish Company without a tender, the Albanian Government withdrew permits for all hydropower projects on the free-flowing Vjosa River and said it plans to integrate the area into the Vjosa national park.
Guinea installed 225 MW at the Souapiti Hydropower Project located on the Konkoure River, with a total installed capacity of 450 MW. This project was constructed by China International Water & Electric Corporation (CWE – subsidiary of China Tree Gorges Group) and is expected to cost about $2 billion. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch the dam’s reservoir will ultimately displace an estimated 16,000 people from 101 villages and hamlets. It will flood 253 square kilometers of land, including an estimated 42 square kilometers of crops and more than 550,000 crop-bearing trees. Displaced populations will have less favorable land than they have been farming for generations and dozens of already displaced residents interviewed by the Human Rights Watch say that they are already struggling to find adequate food for their families. Meanwhile, a failure to expand capacity of the transmission line connecting Souapiti and Kaléta with Conakry has left large amounts of new generation stranded and Electricité de Guinée experiences difficulties in returning loans to Chinese banks.
In Africa Ethiopia is a champion in building hydropower that destroys key natural assets and community livelihoods on transboundary rivers. It connected to the grid 254 MW Genale Dawa III, financed by Chinese banks and assisted by Chinese contractors (somehow the IHA reported it twice in 2019 and 2020). The dam will entail significant impacts on Somalia, severely restricting flows into Somalia’s Juba River. The Juba is one of only two perennial rivers in Somalia, and it accounts for most of the country’s agricultural production. The Genale Dawa III is expected to reduce the Juba’s flows by between a quarter and a third, with major consequences for Somalia’s food security.
The Grand Renaissance Dam (6,000 MW) on the Nile completed the first stage of filling its reservoir in July 2020 with 4.9 billion cubic meters of storage and threatens both Egypt and Sudan, who actively develop international coalition to press Ethiopia to commit to a legally binding agreement on the amount of water retained in the reservoir and schedule of downstream flows.
In Kenya a Lake Turkana was put on the “World Heritage in Danger” List due to destructive impacts from a dam built by Ethiopia on Omo River and in 2021 UNESCO still requests in vain Ethiopia and Kenya to jointly present a Strategic Environmental Assessment and develop safeguards against further degradation.
The country is best known for the 2.4 GW Hidroituango project, which was developed on the free-flowing Cauca River with rampant violations of human rights and multiple murders of local activists. Construction was stalled in 2018 by a giant landslide, creating threat of dam failure, which caused displacement of 12,000 people from downstream settlements. The IHA Report notes that the Inter-American Development Bank in 2020 approved an extra US$900 mill. to salvage/finish the Ituango project, while Export Development Canada publicly stated they regret participation in financing this dam. Following this incident Colombia revised its energy development program to avoid overreliance on hydropower, thus we doubt accuracy of the IRENA report of 680 MW of new hydro. However, in 2021 placement of wind farms proceeds with violations of indigenous peoples’ rights similar to those in case of the Ituango project.
Chile by January 2021 connected to grid the 251 MW Alto-Maipo dam built by US AES Corporation with many violations of community rights, which may jeopardize Santiago’s drinking water to benefit a mining tycoon. In July 2020 the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism concluded in its report on the Alto-Maipo Hydroelectric Project that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) breached its policies, since the company implementing the project failed to: carry out any assessment of gender-differentiated impacts, despite the large number of workers brought into the Maipo River Valley; evaluate the impacts of the project on recreational uses of the river; and assess the impact of the project on cattle drivers, among other issues. Decision comes too late to serve justice to communities affected by this ill-designed project.
The Lower Churchill Dam, the 1st phase of the Muskrats Falls Project in Labrador entered textbooks on environmental risks long before its first turbine was connected to grid. The project that is billions over budget and years behind schedule, at a final forecast will cost more than $13 billion. Local Inuit people resisted the flooding by the 834 MW dam arguing it will contaminate the area with methylmercury. The company continued with the project and flooded the 41-sq-km reservoir. The Innu Nation of Labrador announced on October 6th 2020, that it is seeking $4 billion in damages from Hydro-Quebec over this mega-dam. The suit, filed in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland & Labrador, seeks compensation for the theft of ancestral Innu land in 1967 to build the Churchill Falls hydro-electric project. Another prominent case in Canada is “Site C” hydropower construction progressing on the Peace River in British Columbia that will greatly increase disruption of flows to the Wood Buffalo World Heritage site and lands of indigenous people. After a request from the World Heritage Committee the Government of Canada completed a strategic environmental assessment, which confirmed detrimental effects, but failed to undertake decisive steps to prevent damage.
Honduras and Sinohydro Co. have put in operation the 106 MW Patuca III Hydro, which for a decade has been of outmost concern due to its potential impact on Rio Platano World Heritage site that was recognized as “Heritage in Danger”. In early 2020 Honduras reported that the Patuca III HPP has been completed to 97% and the reservoir was filled at 81,3%. In 2021 the World Heritage Center noted with serious concern and regret that construction of the Patuca III HPP is now essentially completed without a proper assessment of the current and potential impacts of the project on the World Heritage property. It requests that a strategic environmental assessment to be urgently expedited to assist putting in place the necessary measures to mitigate adverse impacts on the property.
Besides that, Honduras is widely known as a country where hydropower builders employ assassins to get rid of local activists. The story of indigenous Lenca leader, Berta Caceres assassination has become widely known globally, but it has not stopped the local practices. Twelve indigenous and environmental activists were killed in 2020. The last victim Cerros Escalante, shot on March 22 2021, led a local group called “Communities United,” was active in hamlets near the Rio Ulúa and opposed the El Tornillito hydroelectric dam.
The only sizeable new plant we could discern in the USA was the 36 MW Red Rock Hydroelectric Project mounted on pre-existing dam. So, likely, the rest from 157 MW reported by IRENA came from upgrades and expansion of existing hydro. Statistics shows that hydro makes about 0.4% (by capacity) in new electricity project pipeline at the end 2020, and proposed pumped storage makes less than 2% of storage projects in the pipeline, with 98% occupied by batteries.
The projects listed above together make up 90% of global hydropower installation in 2020. Hardly 10% of projects put on-line do not have notable flaws, which make them inherently unsustainable and dangerous. Exactly the same trend was observed about projects completed in 2019 in the review presented in the Rivers for Recovery Report. Thus we see perpetuation of unsustainable pattern of destructive hydropower development without effective attempts by the industry to stop it.
Published in the “Water Yearbook: Central Asia and around the Globe-2020”, SIC ICWC, Tashkent 2021
Eugene Simonov, Rivers without Boundaries International Coalition (RwB).
 Disclaimer: By not mentioning smaller contributions to hydropower installation, we by no means imply that smaller hydropower does not cause environmental harm. It is equally harmful and to rivers where dams are built and similarly impinges on rights of communities living on those rivers.