Natural infrastructure part of the hydropower debate

During the recent World Congress on Advancing Sustainable Hydropower in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, IUCN shared its views on the role of natural infrastructure in securing renewable energy supplies and enhancing sustainable development.

International Hydropower Association

Natural infrastructure is another term used to describe ecosystem services – the benefits that people obtain from nature. Watersheds themselves are natural infrastructure where they perform infrastructure functions for water. Examples include upland soils that store water, wetlands that store and clean water, floodplains that buffer floods, rivers that provide water conveyance and mangroves, coral reefs and barrier islands that protect coastal communities.

Building water infrastructure is a critical part of economic development. Natural infrastructure is part of the infrastructure mix needed for sustainable development and for climate resilience. The problem is that natural infrastructure usually gets sidelined in decision-making and forgotten in infrastructure investments.

Responding to questions at the IHA Congress session on ‘Integrating Water and Energy Policies’, Dr Mark Smith, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme said that “We should be thinking in terms of portfolios of water infrastructure, combining both built and natural infrastructure. Natural infrastructure can’t generate electricity, but all the same hydropower depends on nature. Investing in catchment management was worth $15-40 million dollars to the Paute hydropower development in Ecuador. In upper watersheds of the Kamchay hydroelectric plant in Cambodia, the loss of forests cost the company $2 million a year in revenue.”

In developing infrastructure, economics is key. But, continued Smith, “leaving natural infrastructure out of the equation can be costly, in terms of costs that can be avoided and mistakes that are costly to fix. One well known example is from New York City, where investing $1.5 billion dollars in watershed management saved $6 billion by replacing the need for a new water filtration plant. An example for hydropower comes from the Tana river in Kenya. When ecosystem services were taken into account, a proposed dam had a net cost of $45 million. Some changes in dam design and operations to enable downstream flows to support ecosystem services would reverse these losses.”

The high-level Congress, organised by the International Hydropower Association, was attended by 400 delegates from all over the world including policy makers, civil society representatives, industry leaders and members of the financial sector. Participants were encouraged to voice opinions and share regional and global perspectives, expertise, and practical experience in developing sustainable hydropower projects, with a view to directly informing policy, shaping action and setting future strategies at the global level.

There is a pressing need for all those involved in the development of sustainable hydropower anywhere in the world to come together and utilise common language to take more informed decisions through instructive dialogue, enabling hydropower to achieve its full contribution to sustainable development.” said Refaat Abdel-Malek, IHA President.

Where hydropower development is selected as a suitable option for a river basin, it can make a bigger contribution to sustainable development where design and investment takes into account multiple uses of water and the whole portfolio of built and natural infrastructure needed in a basin.”This will be a fundamental tenet of the path forward if there is going to be ‘sustainable hydropower’,” concluded Mark Smith.

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