For nearly three decades, Achim Steiner has worked tirelessly as a global leader on sustainable development, climate resilience and international cooperation. During a recent FutureDAMS webinar with David Hulme, Executive Director of the Global Development Institute at University of Manchester in the UK, Steiner discussed the sustainable development of water and energy resources. He reflected on his experience as United Nations Development Programme Administrator and Vice-Chair of the UN Sustainable Development Group, as well as his former role as Secretary General of the World Commission on Dams.

Achim Steiner is keen to praise the work of the FutureDAMS project. He says it speaks to precisely the design challenge that goes well beyond the engineering of a dam and really looks to future development. Indeed, 21 years ago, the World Commission on Dams’ (WCD) final report focused on dams and development. But what has driven changes over the past few decades? And where do we go next?

“I would begin by saying that there are some fundamentals that have over time driven both an understanding and awareness, but also a different set of paradigms and choices, that are essentially related to two issues – inequality and sustainability,” Steiner says. “We still live in an age where over 800 million people don’t have access to electricity. And the world is dependent on a fossil fuel-based infrastructure for producing energy that is now taking us to the brink where we will lose control over what happens with climate change.”

Although he describes economic progress as being “amazing”, by the end of 20th century Steiner says that we began to question confidence in our societies and governments to deliver a fair outcome in development. Poverty that prevails and inequality that becomes more pronounced is dividing society. There is heightened awareness that we need to address this issue: access to energy and water are two profound developmental and individual phenomena. At the same time, in many parts of the world, there is an increasing realisation that there simply isn’t going to be enough water. Many river basins in the world now trade water and water scarcity in many regions, such as the US, has become a real prospect.

Steiner believes that inequality and sustainability are the two key drivers that have changed our understanding, awareness and sense of urgency in redesigning the economy around the use of water and energy. Ultimately, we need it to become compatible with the ecosystem, not destroying the ecological infrastructure that is fundamental for us to survive – never mind generate power and food production across the world.

So how can we help to change the way we use water and produce energy? It is all down to the economy within which we operate, Steiner replied. Much of the paradigm of development has been driven by the economic view that is more akin to an extractive industry. He explains that we have essentially taken what the planet provides us with, achieved a high level of development but somehow always have had this assumption that we would be less dependent on the natural systems around us.

“Here we are, the most technologically advanced generation in human history, and yet we are thrown back to first world phenomenon such as climate change – in the last few months we have seen the catastrophic effects this has. Simple things like floods and fires are beginning to threaten the very foundation of the wealth and infrastructure we have created. The first focus has to be on the economic paradigm that informs both consumption and production, and here,” Steiner stresses, “we are being far too slow.”

There is a whole litany of issues, the United Nations Development Programme Administrator went on to explain. For example, is GDP a good indicator of growth? Is growth itself something that defines successful development? Right down to the kind of taxation system where we continue to tax one of the best things we have in our society – work. Steiner says that we continue to tax work as the continual source of revenue for public fiscal policy. Yet there has been debate for years about shifting the burden of taxation away to taxing the barriers that undermine our economic and human wellbeing, such as environmental tax reforms and fossil fuel subsidies.

We are in the midst of seeing entire economies shift to renewable energy platforms, Steiner admits, adding that “in less than a generation we have seen perhaps the most profound technological advances”. However, he warns, we are on “a frighteningly short timeline with climate change”.

“It is time. Time. Time,” he repeats. “It is a race against time that we find ourselves in again today. Our challenge is a race against time and not about ultimately how to power and sustain eight to nine billion people on this planet. We are perfectly capable of doing that, but we have to transform our economics from production to consumption.”

Steiner believes that the decarbonisation pathway is the only way where we have a chance to get to grips with climate change, and that can in turn provide us with solutions that benefit many -such as bringing back ecosystems and reducing pollution and premature death from fossil fuel pollution.

World Commission on Dams

Speaking about the World Commission on Dams, Hulme asks in what way did it push forward learning and lead to change?

“WCD did not achieve universal peace,” Steiner laughs. “It was born out of controversy and also landed in a world that was still very polarised.”

Describing WCD as “an extraordinary group of commissioners”, Steiner says it was an remarkable experience that profoundly changed his understanding of development and how to deal with issues that often divide society.

“The fact that this report remains a reference in the debate on dams essentially reflects one fundamental shift. The construction of dams was, first of all, a civilisational journey that took human ingenuity, engineering hydrology and all the things that came with it to a new level of sophistication,” Steiner said. “It climaxed somewhere in middle of the 20th century and certainly passed its peak towards the end of it. It became a technology that had to be increasingly understood as not a product of engineering and river basin management etc, but had to be understood as a profound intervention into systems – such as social, economic and ecological systems. The World Commission on Dams and its final report gave expression to the implications of embracing that understanding and how to decide in future whether to build a dam or not.”

The commission established a three-dimensional view of dam projects. If you build a dam you are intervening into systems and your answer on whether to build or not is going to be determined by how people understand the impact of the dam in these systems, Steiner explained. He spoke about “one of the incontestable findings that all commissioners came together on”. This was that the biggest mistakes were made at the point when you decide to build a dam or not. Options assessment and looking at the alternatives “are profoundly important”. Sometimes, Steiner claimed, dams were built “as someone thought that it was brilliant thing to do, and all sorts of interests congregate around these mega projects”.

“We actually agreed in the commission not to use the term trade-offs anymore. And it is something I have maintained for myself ever since,” Steiner commented. “A trade-off is one group deciding for another what is good or bad for them. Dams are neither themselves good nor bad. What determines their value or in a sense their impact (positive or negative) is how they impact on people, ecology and economic systems. “

With its rights and risk framework, Steiner says that WCD had a new way of holding to account those who wanted to advocate for dams, as well as accounting for those who were affected by dams. Nobody in the past had really ever calculated the cost for those living downstream, along with impacts on environmental flows, he said.

Talking about his work with WCD, Steiner admits that a lot was learnt from the US’ experiences. The country was one of the biggest dam builders in 20th century but by the later part had invested billions of dollars in buying back water to ensure environmental flows and maintain the ecological viability of its river systems.

Steiner says that the World Commission on Dam learnt a lot from the US’ dam building experience.

Such a paradigm shift is one illustration of how societies are making very different decisions in today’s world, Steiner says. He also mentioned the bitter irony the commission witnessed when looking at dams that were built to power an economy and provide electricity. He said that the WCD actually saw the irony of “bringing power to the people” when the very people, who were resettled downstream to make way for that dam, still did not have access to one power point 20 years later.

Energy transition

There is something immensely enticing about harnessing the power of nature. This is what drove dam building, Steiner says. The idea that you can produce a third of your power needs by capturing river water and turning millions of lightbulbs on, was “simple and compelling logic”.

However, it was the compounded impact of dams that led to that understanding that you cannot just look at a dam from a design option. When you look at some of the large dam projects, Steiner said, there is no question that in many ways a dam is a temple of human ingenuity.

“But you cannot”, he articulated, “and I say it with all respect for engineers, you cannot let engineers decide for a society whether a dam is in fact the best option for a society to build at that moment.”

When asked about what role he thinks hydropower will play in the clean energy transition, Steiner says that “we have many more alternatives today in terms of power generation and I think that the notion that hydropower is the singular driver of the construction of large dams in the future is in part being overtaken by the economics of other renewable energy sources”.

He acknowledges that many countries have a clear challenge with energy storage and it “is something that clearly dams and reservoirs can provide” but “the question is when is it the best option versus other options?”

Ultimately large dams will still be built, Steiner says, but hopefully they “will be built out of a very rigorous assessment of all options and in a far more transparent and democratic fashion”.

“We often say large dams and hydropower are synonymous but there’s a great deal of hydropower production that does not necessarily involve large scale dams or reservoir systems,” he said.

Steiner believes there is significant potential here, particularly in developing countries, to look at hydropower (such as run-of-river and smaller scale schemes) and view them as stepping stones towards more complex and sophisticated renewable energy infrastructure. We could all invest a great deal more attention, and also resources, in this right now as part of the transition in the climate change debate, he added.

Large dams

“I still hesitate to arrive at a sort of summary judgement on dams,” Steiner said. “First of all, you know large dams are less and less likely to be an attractive investment simply because we no longer live in an age where 100-year floods, and many of these hydrological design assumptions that governed a certain degree of predictability, actually hold.”

Steiner spoke about his experience of living in Kenya for ten years. Kenya was significantly dependent on hydropower but with ever more frequent cycles of drought and more uneven rainfall patterns it “clearly could not build its energy economy around hydropower”. It is still a part of the mix but the country has now invested more in geothermal, solar and wind.

“I would say that yes the era we are in is going to make large dams less and less likely but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any large dams that still make sense to build if, and that is a big if, we are able to demonstrate and manage that dam in a way that is compatible with social, environmental and ecological parameters that are not peripheral, but central, to the decision. What will make dam building more difficult in the future,” he says, “is just the economics.”

Reflecting on his work with WCD, Steiner said the experience “was for me the most intense degree in development studies I have ever done”. He said that a dam, which is basically just a singular structure, is a prism on just about every aspect of development – human rights, economics, hydrology and power pricing etc.

“It’s fascinating,” he said, “how one structure inserted into a system suddenly becomes a magnifying glass on everything that is implied when we have to make development decisions.”

The challenge for dams and development is making the best choices “that are not choices for an elite nor just of experts, but of the generation that now lives with the responsibility to choose and also the generation that will have to live with the consequences of it”. In addition, Steiner believes that development thinking, planning and decision-making have been profoundly shifted by an inter-generational dimension that wasn’t as clearly present 20 or 30 years ago.

“I come back to the DNA of the sustainable development goals. Instead of simply designing power generating infrastructure you also need to think about how are we going to drive economic development? How are we going to reduce poverty and create jobs? How are we going to maintain our ecological and biodiversity assets in a country? Then you start planning a very different set of infrastructure projects and investment paths. And that is the development challenge of our time,” Steiner says, “dealing with complexity but making decisions with a far greater scope to make optimal decisions, hopefully with far fewer people paying a high price or indeed with nature being lost in the process.”

This article first appeared in International Water Power magazine.