To: Government officials at the municipal, state, provincial, and national level, financiers of energy and infrastructure projects, energy companies, intergovernmental organizations and committees,
We, the undersigned, urge you to recognize the critical importance of protecting rivers to a just and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Rivers underpin our natural systems and work as an economic safety net for the poor and vulnerable in many low- and middle-income countries. Yet, for generations, these arteries of the planet have been dammed, diverted, and polluted at a catastrophic cost to people and Earth’s living systems.
A new paradigm in river stewardship is critical, not only to safeguard the water sources that are indispensable to life and public health, but to help prevent countries bankrupted by COVID-19 from taking on calamitous new debt, speed a just energy transition, and effectively confront the climate crisis.
That’s why we are calling on you to do right by our rivers—our life support—by advancing a truly just, green recovery that:
Puts a moratorium on new hydropower dams
Upscales investment in non-hydropower renewables and storage
Upgrades efficiency of existing hydropower in lieu of building new dams
Initiates new energy plans that prioritize distributed and smaller-scale energy solutions
Safeguards protected areas, free-flowing rivers and Indigenous territories
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health and economic crises are devastating populations around the globe, affecting marginalized and vulnerable groups most acutely. The massive, transformational shocks these crises have produced for our current economic, energy, and food systems require an equally transformational response, to address widespread economic collapse, hunger, unemployment, and environmental damage, centered in concerns for social justice and ecological integrity.
Rivers and freshwater ecosystems are vital to a post-COVID global economic recovery. They underpin our natural systems, provide critical ecosystem services, and work as an economic safety net for the poor and vulnerable in many low- and middle-income countries. Yet, for generations, these arteries of the planet have been dammed, diverted, and polluted at a catastrophic cost to people and Earth’s living systems. One in three freshwater species is now threatened with extinction.
Today’s tragic pandemic sheds new light on the fundamental inequities and challenges of our time, providing an opportunity to change course on the historic degradation of our rivers and freshwater systems into the future. Our natural systems are integral to life on earth; for too long we have taken them for granted, and exploited them to drive profit and “development” for the primary benefit of a privileged minority.. Globally, this trajectory has been unsustainable.
A new paradigm in river stewardship is critical, not only to safeguard the water sources that are indispensable to life and public health, but to help prevent countries bankrupted by COVID-19 from taking on calamitous new debt, speed a just energy transition, and effectively confront the climate crisis. The current push to escalate dam-building in many low and middle income countries threatens such progress – a false energy solution that the hydropower industry is promoting under the guise of a “green” economic recovery.
A false path to economic recovery is one that expands crippling debt for countries already struggling under massive debt burdens, prioritizes “green-washed” solutions that divert scarce funds away from better alternatives, promotes large centralized grids designed around destructive projects, such as mega-dams and fossil fuels, weakens environmental and social safeguards, and continues the abuse of our freshwater resources.
Hydropower dams carry extremely high environmental and social impacts – they are a false solution and cannot deliver a green recovery. By comparison, investments in decentralized solar and wind technologies, as well as energy efficiency, are affordable, quickly deployable, and can deliver jobs cost-effectively in the economic recovery. In order to rebuild towards a better future, economic stimulus packages should invest in low-impact technologies and those that benefit vulnerable populations and ecosystems, prioritizing community rights and participation rather than bailing out destructive industries that are rapidly losing relevance and financing.
We call for a recovery that is rooted in climate justice and protects our rivers as critical lifelines – supporting biodiversity, water supply, food production, Indigenous peoples, and diverse populations around the world – rather than damming and polluting them in pursuit of profit and economic growth.
1.A moratorium on new hydropower dams as an essential step towards a sustainable and just economic recovery. This should be accompanied by a comprehensive review of energy systems and pipeline projects to ensure priority to protecting freshwater ecosystems and the community livelihoods and economies that depend on them.
2.A rapid upscale of investment into non-hydropower renewables and storage, together with policies to facilitate socially and environmentally responsible investment. Investment should kickstart renewable energy projects, roll out centralized and distributed connectivity, build jobs, and deliver low-cost and low-impact electrification to those experiencing energy poverty. Governments can use incentives to foster upstream value chain investment in local renewable energy manufacturing and assembly.
3.Upgrades to existing hydropower projects to increase efficiency instead of building new dams. This can include retrofitting turbines, improved pumped storage, and grid-integration with wind, solar, and other energy innovations. Upgrades should be accompanied by concrete steps to reduce damage to freshwater ecosystems and local livelihoods through robust mitigation and compensation. Dam removal and river restoration should be undertaken when the adverse social and environmental impacts of existing dams cannot be effectively mitigated.
Investment in green infrastructure that protects and restores freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity, alongside laws governing freshwater protection.
This includes ensuring priority to ecosystem services and job opportunities for local communities, and facilitating dialogues between government, private sector, and Indigenous and community water users. Green infrastructure and renewable energy investments must be in line with international human rights standards and environmental safeguards and respect the right of Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities to Free, Prior, and Informed Consultation and Consent.