International Association for Impact Assessment

2024 Global Award

  • Learn more about the Hydropower Sustainability Alliance in this interview with João Costa.


    IAIA CEO Gary Baker chats with João Costa of Hydropower Sustainability Alliance, winner of the 2024 Global Award. Listen to the conversation now, and see the full transcript below.

    Gary Baker, IAIA CEO: Hello, everyone. I'm delighted to be joined by João Costa, who is the Executive Director of the Hydropower Sustainability Alliance, the recipient of IAIA’s 2024 Global Award. This is a very specific and influential award, which deals with the development of sustainability assessment tools and the importance that those tools play in the collective work of what we are all trying to do. João, welcome. Please explain a little bit about Hydropower Sustainability Alliance, and then we will discuss the award and the specific certification that you have developed.

    João Costa, Executive Director, Hydropower Sustainability Alliance: Hi, Gary, and thank you so much for this opportunity.  I am very honored to represent the Hydropower Sustainability Alliance, which is an independent standard-setting body that exists relatively recently, but is the outcome of long-term work done by a number of organizations, including the International Hydropower Association, and a set of stakeholders, from civil society representatives, financiers, and governments, that around 15 years ago gathered to react to the World Commission's On Dam report. This was a landmark document and study made on hydropower and dams, in the context of water energy nexus and how relevant it was, but also about their negative impacts on people in nature. All the stakeholders that were involved in hydropower development were concerned and needed to find a way to solve these crucial ESG issues, and together, around 2007 to 2010, worked to define and design a set of assessment tools, good and best practice guidance to improve the way hydropower projects are developed and operated with sustainability in mind. These tools and guides were developed and applied for around 10 years all over the world until they evolved into a sustainability certification system, harnessed around the new hydropower sustainability standard. And that's where we stand today, at the forefront of all of this work that has been done by so many people. We are basically the alliance of the custodians of the Hydropower Sustainability Standard, and we are the managers and owners of this certification system, carrying the torch on the sustainability work in this crucial industry for climate transition, etc.

    Gary: All of this collective work -- was it always the plan that after 10 years, it would eventually become a standard? How do you have the confidence to feel it is now an industry standard? Where does that light bulb moment come from?

    João: I don't think it was designed from the beginning to become a standard. I know it was discussed, whether it should it be a standard or not. For a number of reasons, maybe the industry wasn't ready to have such a rigorous system that could actually showcase good and also demonstrate the bad projects. There were some concerns, I believe. There was not a specific plan, but it was the natural evolution of a system of assessing projects. After a while, we reached a point where they said, okay, these tools are incredibly useful, thorough, and of high quality, but they are not being used enough. How can you make this more widely adopted? How can we create the incentives? How can we create the demand for it? And we had to be honest, it was kind of a leap into the unknown. Shall we make this a certification? What are the risks of that? And there are risks. When it's not the system, the industry might take it or not. We had to take a leap, and we did. Now we're going through it, and it's been fantastic, honestly.

    Gary: My understanding is there are two elements. There's the assessor side, so how you create that capacity for judging this, and then the actual certification on specific projects, and involvement in both of those. Who are the other stakeholders involved in all of this? It seems inevitably it's going to be very, very wide in terms of who's influenced and who's involved in it.

    João: Yes, that is a crucial part and kind of a unique and powerful element of our organization. It's the multi-stakeholder side of it. On the governance system, we have representatives of four key stakeholders: industry, government, civil society, and financiers. These are the elements that represent all the different, not always aligned, perspectives on sustainability and power. And that's crucial for acceptance, to have a space for discussion and for seeking consensus. We are probably a space for that.

    Then we have the element of certification. These multi-stakeholder views create the requirements and set the benchmark and the definitions of good practice. Then we have a system of assessing with independent accredited assessors -- highly skilled, highly experienced experts in the fields of impact assessment, environmental engineering, and hydropower -- who are trained to use our standard and to evaluate projects against the requirements of our standard, and they do it independently.

    In our certification system, we train these accredited assessors, and then they act independently to assess a project. We take a step back when the project is actually being evaluated, reducing the conflict of interest. We let the system work on its own, and then we certify if it meets all the methodologies and quality controls.

    Gary: Very interesting. This culmination of work, the launch of the standard -- what are now the challenges? What happens next for this? Is this about gradually implementing it in more and more locations, plants, and projects? What does that future look like?

    João: Big challenges. First, we need the industry to know that we exist. We need the industry to understand what it means to get certified and what is the assessment process, which is thorough. It requires effort and time as well. Industry needs to understand that and to recognize the value of certifying a project and of going through this assessment process. Once the industry sees the value, understands the effort that is needed, then it can start adopting it. But there are obviously challenges. Fortunately, we have a strong link with the International Hydropower Association, which was the genesis of all these tools. They're doing tremendous work to encourage and impose the use of our standards within their membership, which represents the majority of hydropower developers in the world. So that's one challenge -- working with the industry, demonstrating the value. Fortunately, we have IHA, and we also have a number of industry champions that are taking it on and certifying their projects. We have projects certified in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, and Tajikistan, just to name a few, and they started last year only. These are really the champions that demonstrate. Beyond industry, we're working to add value by embedding the standard in financial mechanisms, government guidelines, insurance company risk frameworks, and corporate initiatives. We need to get the financiers to require its use, the governments to provide the right incentives, the civil society to demand transparency and demand this kind of public standards and demonstration of sustainability, and the industry to recognize its value. Working with several stakeholders, showcasing the value, creating the right incentives, and basically making it almost difficult not to use the standard and eliminate the excuses that people use.

    Gary: Brilliant. A very richly deserved award. I know there's a huge amount of work that goes into establishing standards -- you get to that starting point, and then the work starts all over again to try and establish it further and further. It's great to hear more of that. I wish you very well as you develop that process, and I look forward to continuing that conversation with you. Thank you.

    João: Gary, it was a pleasure. See you soon.

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