By: Michael Simon
There is no defensible way to continue damming the world’s rivers.
That was the message that a powerful uprising of individuals, NGOs and social movements delivered to the World Hydropower Congress last week. (It’s not too late to lend your voice here.)
This year’s Congress was ground zero for an aggressive greenwashing campaign by the hydropower industry. Salivating over an anticipated bonanza of climate finance, the industry is engaged in a desperate bid to recast itself as green in hopes to cash in as governments begin the transition to a low-carbon energy future.
Their only problem? The legion of scientists, activists and affected people who know better. Many of them gathered in Paris to host an alternative conference on Monday, May 13, a day before the official World Hydropower Congress began. They followed their day of meetings with a high-profile protest right outside the Congress entrance for its opening the next day.
The True Face of Hydropower
The alternative conference drew a rich and diverse crowd of participants, including three leaders of the Munduruku indigenous people from the Brazilian Amazon, and Jeff Opperman of WWF, lead author of a report released that day entitled Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people. The report asserts that the world can meet its climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers, which a recent study showed are dwindling fast.
At the parallel conference, participants launched a joint declaration on the “False Promises of Hydropower: Why Hydroelectric Dams will Not Deliver the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” signed by some 250 civil society organizations from over 70 countries. The declaration points out hydropower’s long and well-studied track record as a biodiversity-killing, climate-warming menace associated with human rights violations, and includes a call for action that includes a halt to funding for new dam projects through the Climate Bonds Initiative and Green Climate Fund.
We also launched a hard-hitting petition for individuals to sign, laying out the case drawn from decades of bad experiences. And the NGO Rivers Without Boundaries released a draft report pointing the finger directly at the hydropower industry for its role in threatening precious World Heritage sites – which made UNESCO’s co-sponsorship of the Congress something between alarming and downright Orwellian.
The next day, the Munduruku leaders and other dam-affected peoples, together with Extinction Rebellion – France and Planète Amazone, staged a dramatic protest at the entrance to the World Hydropower Congress. They built a dam at the building’s entrance that was littered with dead (cardboard) fish, and staged a die-in, reciting the names of the many people killed for defending their rivers and rights. It was chilling and effective.
The three Munduruku leaders were eventually invited speak on a panel inside the World Hydropower Congress about dams and indigenous peoples. It was an extraordinary opportunity to address the industry that’s threatening their lives, lands and livelihoods, and they got their message across: Dams are destroying their river and their livelihoods, they said, and they were never consulted. Their ultimate message? “We don’t want dams. Respect our livelihoods, respect our rights, respect our rivers.”
The Munduruku also presented their own protocol on how a process of free, prior and informed consultation and consent should be conducted in good faith, whenever projects and policy decisions may affect their territories and rights..
Hydropower: A Losing Technology
The Munduruku leaders voiced truths that are nearly universally acknowledged. By every metric, hydropower is a losing technology. It has an abysmal record on human rights. Its reservoirs are the largest source of human-caused methane emissions. And it’s is one of the biggest culprits behind the precipitous drop in freshwater species populations in the last three decades.
Dams even threaten fully one-quarter of the planet’s World Heritage sites.
And yet the industry, which has faltered in recent years with the ascendance of cleaner, safer and faster-to-build wind and solar power, still wants a piece of the low-carbon pie.
But the most important thing is to hear from those who know best the havoc and destruction hydropower projects bring: Dam-affected people themselves. They are locked out of the government offices and boardrooms where these decisions are made, and left to suffer the consequences. Members of the Munduruku, a tribe indigenous to the Amazon, came to Paris to speak their truth, and they did. Their very presence refuted the dam industry’s deception that it’s a “green” or “sustainable” industry.
Featured image: Munduruku leaders in Paris protesting at the 2019 World Hydropower Congress | Photo by Todd Southgate