Can hydropower be environmentally friendly?

GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr Danka Thalmeinerova recently moderated a panel discussion at the ICPDR workshop “Sustainable Hydropower: Progress, Solutions and Remaining Challenges”. These are her reflections from the event.


All Danube Basin countries have committed to the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). It implies the duty to adopt all measures necessary to achieve the “good status” for all waters. One of the most difficult requirements of the WFD is the principle of non-deterioration of water status.

Under the EU Renewable Energy Directive other requirements are aimed to increase the share of energy from renewable sources. In Danube Basin, the hydroelectric power represents the most important component of total renewable energy production. Thus, the conflict arises: how to maximize benefits of hydropower generation and minimize all negative impacts?

The impacts are huge and include altered sediment dynamics and flow regime, disturbance of cemented structures on habitat and river species and disruption of ecological continuity.

According to the first Danube River Basin Management Plan, significant investments are needed to remediate negative impacts of already existing facilities to meet the requirements of EU environmental legislation. In the case of new hydropower installations, cross-sectorial dialogue of water and energy sectors is a must; without a coordinated approach, both sectors are at risk to fail achieving the objectives and legal compliance.

Although all EU countries are obliged to develop strategic documents helping sustainable decision- making on hydropower projects, there are several technical, administrative and legislative challenges. In addition, Danube Basin is international, crossing administrative and territorial borders. Many NGOs in the Danube basin pointed out that the development of hydropower still puts economic over social and environmental benefits.

NGOs also conducted a survey, according which many countries upgraded existing hydropower plants in technical efficiency, while ecological upgrade has been widely missed. In addition, environmental experts in the Danube Basin alert that hydropower projects are being assessed individually without consideration of cumulative impacts and the basin wide perspective. Effective and efficient cooperation between energy and environmental authorities and commitment to integrated transparent planning is lacking and so is stakeholder involvement.

Since 2013, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) has become active in initiating a dialogue with representatives from the hydropower sector. As an essential step in this process, the Guiding Principles on Sustainable Hydropower Development in the Danube Basin have been developed by an interdisciplinary team.

Several working sessions culminated in the organisation of the ICPDR workshop “Sustainable Hydropower: Progress, Solutions and Remaining Challenges”. This was held in Vienna, Austria on 28-29 March 2017. An Assessment Report and a collection of Case Studies and Good Practice Examples were elaborated, accompanying the Guiding Principles – all presented during the workshop and complemented with intense discussions.

More than 50 participants from 12 Danube basin countries, observers to ICPDR and EU took part at the workshop. The participants represented governments, NGOs, academia, and private sector; more important is that that energy sector, although only from Austria and Croatia, was actively joining the workshop.

The key message of the workshop was “Restoration will cost more than strategic planning” – the need to share experiences among Danube Countries and not to repeat mistakes from the past. GWP was invited to moderate the panel discussion, putting the key conclusions and highlighting the way forward.

GWP will continue to support the ICPDR, serving as a neutral platform for exchange of experiences in the application of ICPDR Guiding Principles.

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