There are a number of accounts of negative impacts of climate change in rural communities where our members work. Many of the communities have known the importance of healthy watersheds, as they are the source of drinking and irrigation water, as well as timber and non-timber products that provide food and livelihood.
Those communities have traditional rules to sustainably manage their natural resources. HPNET members who work on local community-based hydropower also understand that building resilient watersheds is key for the communities to sustain and regulate stream flow, secure clean drinking and sanitation water, as well as forest resources that could support sustainable rural development. Gram Vikas’ work in Odisha, India is one such example.
In addition, healthy watersheds are the foundation to sustainable community-based hydropower that is also highly beneficial socio-economically.
Hydropower requires a consistent water supply to generate electricity year-round. Seasonal fluctuations in stream-flow, as well as topography and changes in forest cover all impact a system’s energy output, making some systems more vulnerable. When the forest above hydropower intake is logged, the retention capacity of the soil and stream-flow is altered. This could result in greater variability between wet and dry season flow rates, and increase the risk of flood and landslides that could damage hydropower structures. Increased siltation can also clog intakes and wear down turbine runners, incurring additional maintenance costs.
Maintaining and establishing mature forest cover alleviates the impacts of seasonal variability in flow, reduces landslide risks, and can help build resilience against the impacts of climate change. The potential for the communities to access stable sources of electricity provides communities with hydropower an added incentive to protect their watersheds. Community-scale hydropower reinforces environmental traditions by incentivizing watershed strengthening, which, in turn, enables reliable and sustainable power supply. (Examples of this can be found in our feature series, Earth Voices)
Many rural communities in the global south have traditional rules around resource management. Competing land use pressures such as farming, logging, and development by community members as well as external entities make observing such rules challenging. The communities can keep each other accountable by negotiating a plan to prioritize land uses and conservation goals. If all parties commit to implement the plan as a management guide, it could facilitate data collection, fundraising efforts, evaluation of the impact of the plan, and opportunities to adjust management strategies for more impact. Depending on the scale and land ownership of the hydropower watersheds, community would be easier with support from a CSO or a project manager.
Community Micro Hydro + Reforestation
Integrating community-based hydro with reforestation will have dual benefits for rural communities. In addition to the reasons provided above, access to electricity supports income generation of rural households and communities -- the lack of which can exacerbate deforestation.
Due to the inherent nature of community-scale and community-based hydropower, rural communities accessing hydropower are often already organized with active committees for management of the system as well as its load. The committee members often include those with in-depth knowledge of watersheds who could contribute local knowledge to forest conservation and enhancement efforts.
There are cases of reforestation activities affiliated with community hydro projects as well as the communities pledging to conserve watersheds in a form of contracts between funding organizations and the communities.