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Forum: Hydropower Relocates People... So Should We Work With Hydropower?

Opperman, Jeff ; Leisher, Craig; Richter, Brian; Harrison, David; Wongbusarakum, Supin 3/31/2011

Intro: Jeff Opperman

Temacapaulin was a radical departure from the typical big-city freshwater conferences we attend. In this small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, we slept on a rooftop and ate simple meals in a church courtyard, washing and drying our plates afterward. During a break between sessions, we climbed the steep valley wall for a stirring view of the town: its old stone cathedral, tidy central plaza, and road bending toward the river.
And from that lofty, thorny perch, I had a vision of that cathedral 200 feet underwater.

In a few years, Temacapaulin will slowly disappear under the reservoir rising behind a new dam, built to augment water supplies for the millions who live in Jalisco’s burgeoning capital, Guadalajara. The conference was for dam-affected peoples, intentionally held here so that “the eyes of the world” could be on “Temaca,” as it’s commonly called.

On the final night, the town and conference hosts put on one hell of a party. Temaca’s population, which has dwindled to 400, swelled with an equal number of conference attendees and the return of many of its young people who had left to find jobs in Guadalajara, Mexico City and Houston.

The party had the feel of a New Orleans jazz funeral, equal parts ebullience and pain, the bright music shot through with heartache. Temaca’s children stayed up way past their bedtimes dancing with the adults.

A woman stopped to talk to us, carrying a tray of tequila shots for “all my aunts,” as she put it. In her words and defiant smile, she embodied the town’s sense of place and looming loss, saying: “My grandparents are buried over in that cemetery; this is our town, this is where we belong.”

I left Temaca full of questions.

For the Conservancy, I work to advance our  “Hydropower by Design” strategy, which strives to bend the trajectory of new dam development toward greater sustainability, and to balance the benefits sought from damming and controlling rivers — water and energy — with those provided by free-flowing rivers. Like the Conservancy’s overarching Development by Design concept, Hydropower by Design integrates conservation planning with infrastructure planning. It aims to guide new projects toward the least ecologically valuable locations, protect the most valuable, and move mitigation funding away from piecemeal projects and toward fulfillment of a coherent conservation plan.

Consistent with the Conservancy’s growing emphasis on integrating the needs of people with conservation, we intend to incorporate social and cultural values and resources into this framework.

And this is where Temaca left me on uncertain ground.

Hydropower by Design is premised on the concept that the integration of information on various resources at an early stage in the development process, and at large spatial scales, will result in more balanced and sustainable decisions. On its face, incorporating information on social and cultural values into this framework makes both ethical and pragmatic sense. The locations of communities, fish harvesting sites and agricultural areas can be entered into the overall framework, alongside information on conservation values. We can then promote analyses to identify development patterns that meet hydropower objectives while minimizing impacts across all those values.

However, the inclusion of social information poses new challenges. Within conservation planning, we can relatively easily think in terms of  “redundant” habitat patches that can be traded off within a prioritization framework — protect this, lose this, mitigate this. But what do we do when the  “habitat patch” is a town like Temaca?

Even if we are successful in the overarching objective of Hydropower by Design — helping governments identify development patterns that are more sustainable and equitable for both nature and people — the resulting development pattern will still entail the construction of dams that will impact some people. At the scale of Temaca, the overall sustainability of the process may matter little to its citizens… and the impacts may be heart wrenching.

What are the ethical and reputational dimensions of incorporating these social values into Hydropower by Design? And what are the ethical and reputation dimensions of not incorporating them?

As an organization, are we prepared to deal with the new challenges inherent with this broader engagement? Where should we turn for expertise on these challenges?

To help think through these questions, I’ve asked several Conservancy colleagues for their perspectives. In the following essays, Supin Wongbusakarum, Craig Leisher, and David Harrison and Brian Richter offer their thoughts. I gave them the chance to read each other’s articles, and they ended up responding to each other as much as to my questions. Read on for Craig’s essay.


“We should avoid engaging with the siting of any dam that will displace people.”
- by Craig Leisher, Senior Advisor on Conservation and Poverty Issues, TNC

One of my first jobs after grad school was tracking how well the Argentina and Paraguay Yacyretá dam project was complying with the agreed World Bank resettlement process. As I sat in Washington reading the progress reports, it was painful even from afar. People were moved before the new settlements were finished, the resettlement compensation funds were inadequate, and many of the safeguards were disregarded — at a high cost to more than 30,000 people. The independent World Commission on Dams found similar circumstances in its review of 125 large dams: People involuntarily relocated by a large dam are almost always worse off.

Because of its many negative impacts, forced relocation of people is a “third-rail” issue for an organization (such as The Nature Conservancy) that depends on the goodwill of the public. Don’t even get near it. A request to participate in the siting of new dams that will involuntarily relocate people should trigger an automatic recusal of Conservancy involvement.

Imagine for a minute that a government is developing the hydropower potential of a tributary on a major river, and the dam sites were selected with input from the Conservancy to minimize the ecological impact on the main river — but 20,000 people in the tributary’s river valley will be forced to relocate, and these people have lived in the valley for more than 1,000 years. The local people organize and team up with indigenous rights NGOs and attack the Conservancy publicly. The facts could be twisted to say that we care more about a few fish in a river than the tens of thousands of people who will be relocated. And in many countries, the Conservancy is an easier target than the government officials who make the decision about where to site a new dam. The Conservancy’s reputation is one of our most valuable assets, and the potential damage from being associated with a dam that relocates people is not worth the reputational risk. In a Facebook and Twitter world, what happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas.

Even the “free, prior, informed consent” safeguard adopted by WWF, IUCN, IADB and many other organizations is not enough because it only applies to indigenous groups and not all local communities. Enforceability of such safeguards is an additional issue. One country has more large dams in the pipeline than any other: China. Free, prior, informed consent and an autocratic government do not mix well — one erodes the other. In fact, there are no sufficient safeguards to stop local communities and national NGOs from fighting a dam and the Conservancy in the media and, in some countries, the courts.

Moreover, the Conservancy’s core values are still core. Our value of “respect for people, communities and cultures” is contrary to any association with the siting of a dam that will displace local people. “Integrity beyond reproach” calls for us to be accountable to our supporters, and defending the forced relocation of people as the least-worst option for the environment is not a position that will expand our popular support or be perceived by many as meeting our standards of integrity.

Yes, new dams are going to be built with or without us. And yes, we can have a strong influence on a new dam’s ecological impacts. But we should avoid engaging with the siting of any dam that will displace people. A local win for freshwater biodiversity could lead to a large loss for the Conservancy. Let’s not touch the third rail to see if it really is dangerous.


“We will judge ourselves not by clean hands, but on the real difference that we make for people and nature.”
by Brian Richter and David Harrison

Imagine you’re an emergency medical technician and you’ve just witnessed a bad car accident. You know that you can help the injured. But as you run to their aid, you worry about the possibility that something could go wrong. You could make a mistake and get sued. Someone could die.

Virtually everyone reading this would agree that you must do everything you can to help, even though it is risky. In fact, most everyone would agree that it would be unethical to bear witness to such a tragedy but decide to stand back.

We believe that this scenario is directly analogous to what we’re witnessing with dams and the Conservancy’s decisions about whether and how to engage. Here’s the situational analysis on the dam wreckage:

  • At least 500 million people have had their lives thrown into disarray by dam development. Somewhere between 40-80 million have been physically displaced by dam construction, and more than 450 million have been affected downstream of dams due to impacts to fisheries, flood recession agriculture and floodplain grazing, with associated decline in food security.
  • No other human activity has likely done more damage to river ecosystems. More than half the large rivers in the world are impacted by dams, a primary reason that freshwater ecosystems have higher rates of extinction and endangerment than terrestrial or marine one. Species like paddlefish and sturgeon persisted for more than 40 million years… until dams came along.

The Conservancy is unmatched by any other organization in thoroughly documenting the impacts of dams, offering solutions to those impacts, or demonstrating those solutions in as many places. None has the capacity, expertise or experience with these issues — or the access to the dam industry — that the Conservancy possesses.

The dam wreckage continues. Thousands of new dams are on the drawing boards or under construction.

We infer that Craig does not have a problem with the Conservancy working to alleviate impacts on already-dammed rivers. So the basic question is: Should we engage in places where we see an accident coming?

Engaging with governments that are planning new dams — helping them understand the full implications of their decisions on dam sites and giving information that can lead to more sustainable alternatives — is the most effective way to improve outcomes for both river ecosystems and river-dependent people.

But these governments aren’t going to stop building dams, so the Conservancy will be engaging in a process that ultimately leads to more dams. And because essentially all dams will affect people — if not from relocation, then from downstream impacts — then our involvement could be construed as contributing to a process that leads to relocation and other impacts.

We do understand Craig’s concerns of reputational risk and, in fact, have gone to the Conservancy’s Risk Assessment Committee several times for guidance on our dam engagement. But to choose to completely avoid such risks is to choose to disengage from this critically important process. A standard that requires the Conservancy to abstain from involvement in any process that leads to new dams that impact any people is a standard that requires us to leave this field altogether and, in effect, to walk right past the unfolding accident.

The Conservancy possesses skills, approaches, tools and a reputation that are unparalleled in the dams world — skills and experiences that are indispensable for reducing the impacts from dam siting, design and operation. By expanding our tools and approaches to include social values, we have the potential to improve outcomes for people and nature at meaningful scales. And note that we are proposing to incorporate social/cultural values into frameworks like Hydropower by Design precisely to avoid the hypothetical that Craig describes (i.e., that Conservancy recommendations favor biodiversity, but harm indigenous people).

Society faces an absolute dilemma regarding energy. Dams cause negative social and environmental impacts, but so do other energy generation sources — coal, nuclear and even solar and wind. Business as usual means thousands of new dams, most built without adequate protections or consideration of their cumulative impacts. If the Conservancy is to be relevant and useful in this brave new world, it must find its role in the face of this terrifying array of risks.

The very real challenge to the Conservancy is that, even if we work with the express intent of identifying better alternatives for both nature and people, our engagement will require us to interact with processes that ultimately impact some communities, with potentially heart wrenching outcomes in some instances, like the story Jeff describes of Temaca. But many towns and rivers could directly benefit from our engagement. The Conservancy’s work with dams invokes the Good Samaritan doctrine: We should not be faulted for unintended or unavoidable impacts that occur during a process in which we are earnestly trying to minimize impacts.

Of course, we must enter this messy world with clearly defined principles. We can insist on the most equitable policies for consent and compensation, as we did with our engagement with the Hydropower Sustainability Protocol. And throughout any engagement, we must make it clear that our engagement is aimed at finding the most balanced, sustainable and ethical outcomes. In the end, we will judge ourselves not by clean hands, but on the real difference that we make for people and nature.


“Integrating social and culturalvalues is easy to propose but hard to practice...especially within the Conservancy.”
by Supin Wongbusarakum, Senior Social Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

I come from Thailand and saw how the Pak Mun Dam there, completed with the support of the World Bank in 1994, caused the displacement of 3,000 families and the collapse of local fisheries. I have also witnessed to this day the continued protests of the families that dam displaced — protests of the inadequate compensation they received for lost livelihoods, not to mention their struggles to open the dam’s sluice gates to restore upstream fisheries. So I am glad to see how Hydropower by Design could have a mitigating effect on the environmental impacts of dams. The issue of human impacts related to dam construction, however, is quite a mixed and difficult one to address, with or without Hydropower by Design. Whether there are benefits or losses depend on who you are and what is of value to you.

In the case of dam-related displacement, despite a large number of people receiving benefits from the dam, there are often losers, both temporarily and permanently. Resettlement, for example, affects different groups of people differently. Some welcome the idea of moving to another place to embrace new economic development opportunities and have no problems in taking up a new life and identity. For many others, especially those who are indigenous and have an intimate or special relationship to the lands they lived on for generations, it is tremendously difficult to live through a resettlement process, knowing that your ancestral land is submerged forever behind a dam. The flooding also submerges parts of your cultural traditions, your customs, your connections with your past and history, your sense of home and the core of who you are. The likelihood of successful resettlement depends much on whether the impacted communities accept the alternatives and consequences, and whether they are a part of the decision-making.

Decision-makers use cost-benefit analysis to weigh the tradeoffs of development, in effect assuming some comparability across the dimensions of a complex issue or process. They focus on questions such as: How many people will benefit from the additional and cheaper electricity? What increases can be predicted regarding the value of exports? How many years before these benefits will break even with the construction and the maintenance costs?

But in a world in which impact analysis and project evaluation focus on numbers and dollar values, I am not sure social and cultural values and resources can be well represented and receive a fair share of consideration. Integrating social and cultural values is easy to propose but hard to practice — especially within the Conservancy, where we are still unclear about how far we want to pursue the path toward human benefits, and where we have little understanding and capacity to do the work required to make headway on this path.

When I applied for my current position, I was asked to express what steps I would take to overcome some of the challenges I anticipate in designing, implementing and evaluating conservation strategies that benefit people and nature in a natural science-dominated organization. Of the steps I could think of, one seemed to be a proven approach: to facilitate a greater awareness among non-social scientists of the human dimensions of conservation work — an opportunity for experiential learning within impacted communities. There are no policy briefs or peer-reviewed articles that can have as much impact as the firsthand experience Jeff mentioned. Living the life of those people who are impacted, having the privilege to share their life story and their losses and being posed questions to which we have no answers, since we have never before engaged our own thinking in that direction — all are good and necessary first steps in cultivating that awareness of the human dimensions of our work. We need to become aware of the related social and human rights issues that exist but have long been overlooked in many areas of our work related to dams, rivers… and much else.