Tackling the issues behind hydropower plants


Batang Ai Dam, Sarawak’s first hydropower project.

By Patricia Hului
[email protected]

“Why can’t we build more solar or more wind power? What is it about hydropower that is still compelling?” asked hydropower consultant Dr Helen Locher during a talk on ‘Global Perspective of Hydropower’ organised by Sarawak Energy Bhd at Swinburne University on Oct 20.


Dr Helen Locher

Locher pointed out potential negative impacts from hydropower plants – population displacement, impacts to livelihoods and traditions, environmental changes and losses such in biodiversity, fisheries, heritage, high upfront costs and costs and time blowups.

“Many projects are rushed through to get the benefits with not enough done to understand and address development needs. It is a time and cost-consuming process but with better knowledge now, we can build and operate better hydro projects.”

As such, the independent consultant added that commitment, communication and extensive groundwork with consideration to technical, social, economic, environment and governance factors was required to ensure sustainable development of hydropower.


participants of the talk were came from different background from students to government servants.

Locher, who has extensive professional experience researching and managing social and environmental issues associated with hydropower development, however,  said that hydropower had potential positive contributions.

“Hydropower has the highest energy payback ratio, that’s looking at the amount energy produced for the lifetime of the project relative to how much energy it takes to build, to operate, to fuel an energy source and to decommission. “

It also is resource efficient with the highest electricity efficiency rate falling between 85 per cent and 95 per cent.

“Hydropower provides the most efficient storage technology thanks to its reservoir,” Locher added.

Besides having a very low carbon footprint, hydropower plays a unique role in both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Locher was the coordinator of Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum between 2008 and 2010 which saw the development of the 2010 Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.

The protocol is a framework to assess sustainability at all stages of project implementation and is a consistent, globally-applicable methodology.

Locher said the protocol, launched in 2011, which is an assessment tools for hydro project lifecycle stages from early stage (an idea) to preparation, implementation and operation to ensure the project meets the basic best practices.

“It covers 20 topics that focus on the perspectives of integrative, environmental, social, technical, economic and financial, which is individually scored from 1 to 5 with 5 being the best.”

The Murum Hydropower Dam, she added, was among the early projects assessed under the protocol until the implementation stage since 2012.


A view of Bakun dam.

“In doing this assessment, you certainly get impressions of who is doing well and who is not,” Locher stated.

“A good assessment does not correlate with a developed or developing country, it does not correlate with project size.”

Based on her experience, she explained that the assessment included the attitude of the company or how committed all stakeholders were in ensuring a successful outcome.

Locher emphasised that in the end, quality management system, good information monitoring and response, transparency, integrity and engagement, strong corporate and public sector governance frameworks and strong commitment by all parties were keys to success.

“Extra attention has to be given to communications, cumulative impact, biodiversity and ecosystems, indigenous relations, benefit-sharing mechanisms with project-affected communities as well as labour and working conditions,” she said.

She concluded that every hydropower project was individual in its story, context, issues and challenges.

“They are all quite unique and you can’t have a cookie cutter fit for all projects. It takes a lot of evaluation and tailoring to suit,” she said.

“What we hope the protocol provides is a structured way to share those experiences and good practices so ultimately across the globe we hope all hydro companies and projects will tap in this knowledge shared and make sure the story of their projects development will be very positive.”


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