Yes, but it’s not that straightforward. In terms of the primary source used, hydro power plants are pitted against thermal power plants that burn coal, natural gas, and oil, and as such fall under the category of renewable energy. For while coal, natural gas and oil are consumed in the process of producing energy, HEPPs harness the kinetic energy that exists in a flowing river. Water (as opposed to coal, natural gas, and oil) is not consumed as it is conducted through a turbine to generate energy. Moreover, the process of generating electricity from water is not terribly high in carbon emissions. Therefore, hydropower does not add to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and does not contribute to global climate change. Right at this point, however, one emphatic BUT is due to cut short this by-the-book reasoning. For just as clear as the benefits of HEPPs in combating global climate change may be, their disastrous local impacts are as apparent.
Hydroelectric power plants often leave residential areas and the most fertile agricultural fields completely flooded, raise regional humidity and river temperatures, and reduce the biodiversity of flora and fauna. These impacts have particularly far-reaching and permanent socio-economic consequences in areas with a dense rural population, as they precipitate rural disintegration, cause a decline in agriculture, and trigger mass migration. The compensations given to communities immediately affected by HEPPs are unable to repair these damages, as handing out one-off lump sums only serves to turn a self-sufficient rural population into urban poor in the medium term.
Precisely for these reasons, HEPPs – particularly stations of over 25 MW capacity – are rarely classified as renewable energy alongside solar and wind power despite being renewable in theory. In many documents, including reports by the International Energy Agency, HEPPS are excluded from the renewables category. The fact is that, HEPPs (particularly the large scale ones), with their negative social and environmental impacts documented ubiquitously across the world, are in our present day and age considered a backward technology. This isn’t only the position of environmental activists and communities struggling against HEPPs but also of the mainstream international development community. A report dated 2000 by the World Commission on Dams, for instance, initiated by the World Bank and consisting of development experts and sectoral leaders as well as environmental activists, asserts that HEPPs most often come with “an unacceptable and often unnecessary price,” paid in social and environmental terms by local communities. Especially in the wake of this report, mega-donors such as the World Bank have pulled away from supporting large-scale HEPPs (dams) in the category of green energy despite their being renewable in theory and thus becoming implicated in the social turmoil they cause.
No energy production is completely harm-free, so should we stop producing energy altogether?
It is evident that all forms of energy production, no matter what these may be, will have certain social and ecological impacts. Yet we must not allow this fact to lead to a complacent belief that “there is no alternative.” What falls upon those of us who take issue with HEPPs and their social and ecological footprints is to reiterate that renewability is only one of the factors in a social cost-benefit analysis, even without denying that HEPPs are a renewable energy source. This struggle may be waged on roughly two fronts. One is persistently underlining that HEPPs have a series of social, environmental, and cultural impacts just like any other large-scale infrastructure project despite being renewable. We must therefore incorporate an understanding of environmental protection as a matter that concerns more than one level into the ongoing debate on HEPPs. The fact that a HEPP is favourable in terms of global climate change for not emitting carbon does not at all mean it will produce just and sustainable outcomes in its local area. This reality brings us to the second front of our struggle, which may be termed energy justice. Looking at individual examples, we may come under the impression that local pushback is against thermal energy projects in one area, HEPPs in another, and wind farms in yet another. Upon closer scrutiny of these case-specific reactions and the parallels between them, however, we will see that they are not about objecting to a particular form of energy production but rather about addressing an overarching issue of regional equality and local democracy.
A comprehensive treatment of the various local protestations shows us that this is a call for environmental justice rather than simple anti-hydro opposition. When we construe local struggles within this framework, the question we need to answer ceases to be “Should we stop producing energy altogether?” and rather turns into the likes of “What kind of energy do we want?”, “How do we produce more just, democratic, and ecological energy?”, and “How should energy decisions be taken?”. Local struggles and environmental activists will be all the more convincing, long-lasting, and inclusive to the extent that they are able to advance their position from a politics of opposition to a more comprehensive demand for environmental and energy justice.
Is it even possible to build all these HEPPs?
Probably not. As much as this is good news for communities adversely affected by the HEPP onslaught, it is also an indicator of just how unsound, haphazard, and unstructured the process has been. When the hydro rush first started picking up steam roughly a decade ago, the HEPP projections for Turkey numbered about 2000. This number fell consistently over the years, and today has dropped down to 1400. There are many reasons for this significant decline – the most important of which is undoubtedly the public reaction. In the last decade, hundreds of HEPPs have been completed, and just as many have been taken to court. Courts have, on various grounds, stayed the execution of a considerable number ofprojects. Despite the fact that these legal justifications have not radically overturned the course of HEPP-building, nor have the stay of execution decisions scrapped the projects once and for all, at the end of legal proceedings carried out in tandem with public reaction most HEPP projects have ceased to be feasible. Though this drop in the number of projects that are able to be completed is seldom mentioned by activists, it is nonetheless a huge success in terms of struggles for habitat.
Additionally, we witness many failed investments due to miscalculations. Countless projects that work on paper go out on the field and find dried up streams and rivers that fall below the expected flow rate due to climate change. Towards the close of the 2000s, HEPPs would earn back their investment costs in about 5-6 years. Over the years, this time frame doubled, even tripled, with the success of social movements among other things. This rapid change of circumstances impaired profitability and resulted in many small or medium-sized companies pulling out of the sector, as well as many HEPP projects being abandoned or changing hands. It will not come as a surprise to see a further intensification of this contraction in the sector as a result of the crash of the Turkish Lira (since we know almost all of these projects rely on foreign-currency-denominated debt) and the current economic crisis we are experiencing.