Rivers and Energy

Finding Balance Between People, Nature and Dams

Right now, nations around the world are turning to low-carbon energy to help maintain the climate within safe boundaries. Global forecasts suggest a doubling of renewable energy sources by 2030, and hydropower currently offers nearly twice the generation of all other renewables combined. However, while providing important benefits, hydropower dams can change the way rivers flow, often resulting in negative impacts to nature and people.

Guided by more than 60 years of hands-on, evidence-based conservation, The Nature Conservancy is working globally to provide solutions that balance the dual needs for healthy rivers and low-carbon energy. We aim to create positive, lasting change that ensures people and nature thrive together. 

The Intersection of Rivers and Energy

Free-flowing rivers are essential to the health of our planet and our livelihoods. While rivers represent less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, they are among its most productive and diverse ecosystems.

The United States has developed thousands of hydropower dams, but some countries are just starting to develop dams along their rivers, and they’re doing so faster than ever before. According to some forecasts, global hydropower capacity will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 25 years.

More than 300,000 kilometers of river will likely be affected by dams that are currently planned or under construction. Seventy percent of those impacted rivers contain the greatest diversity of fish species on earth. Further, hydropower expansion will occur in many of the regions where people have the most direct dependence on rivers for their food and livelihoods. 

While additional energy sources are needed, poorly planned hydropower dams can have dramatic, irreversible impacts on the world’s rivers, people and ecosystems that rely on them. 

Finding Balance

The Nature Conservancy aims to protect rivers because of the immense value they provide to people, economies and the environment. While dams and conservation are not always able to find common ground, the Conservancy’s work and research shows there are ways to find balance. Hydropower can be part of a sustainable energy future if designed and operated in a manner that avoids or minimizes impacts on people and vital river functions. 

Using our latest science, innovative solutions and collaborative approaches, we are identifying realistic development pathways that will keep rivers intact and provide clean energy sources to people around the world. 

  • Using our "Hydropower by Design" approach, we are working with government agencies and dam operators to reengineer old dams, remove or avoid others and better plan for those that will occur in the future. Learn more about Hydropower by Design.
  • Our new report, The Power of Rivers: A Business Case—produced in partnership with McGill University, The University of Manchester and PSR— brings decision makers a first-of-its-kind global analysis to help yield better economic, social and environmental outcomes in hydropower planning and management. Learn more.
  • We recently completed a report on the use of Hydropower by Design as a framework to inform investment decisions, using the country of Myanmar as a case example. The findings indicate that using a system-scale approach could enable the country to find better balance between energy production, healthy rivers and community needs. Learn more.
  • In the pursuit of collaborative, common-ground solutions, The Nature Conservancy created the Center for Sustainable Hydropower. Based in Beijing, it serves as a resource for companies, governments, and other stakeholders seeking to better understand and incorporate conservation practices into hydropower development plans. Learn more with this fact sheet and check out the latest Center activity with their annual update.
  • Latin America is planning to build more dams, roads, ports and mines to support the needs of its communities and economies. However, this could bring significant environmental risks to many of the region's unexploited landscapes. The Nature Conservancy is working with partners in Latin America to develop new, “smart” infrastructure in order to address development needs while also protecting rivers, forests, grasslands and coasts now and for the future. Learn more.

Working With Others

The Nature Conservancy works with a wide-range of groups to find better outcomes for the environment. Our work to conserve rivers during a period of global hydropower expansion is no different. In order for us to make the biggest difference, and protect and restore rivers around the world, we need to engage the industry in positive and constructive dialogue around the value of protecting free-flowing rivers as hydropower is developed. We have developed tools, such as Hydropower by Design, that can help governments and industry better understand the risks associated with development and identify alternatives that can minimize irreversible impacts to rivers and those who depend on them for their livelihoods. If we were to back away from such conversations, we would miss very valuable opportunities to insert the environment into the decision-making process and shift river development toward more positive outcomes for people and nature. To that end, we participate in a number of groups where we bring the voice of nature to the table, including:

  • ·The Carbon Bond Initiative Technical Working Group
  • The International Hydropower Association
  • The Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol

Showing What Works: Coatzacoalcos River, Mexico

Snaking across the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, the Coatzacoalcos River is an ecological, cultural and economic treasure for southern Mexico. But the river basin is under increasing pressure to provide food, water and other benefits for Mexico’s growing economy. Among the challenges the river faces is the growing demand for hydropower.

To sustainably meet this demand, The Nature Conservancy is partnering with the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the primary planner and developer of hydropower in Mexico, to demonstrate how Hydropower by Design can benefit both people and nature. The goal is to build dams in places that have the least impact on people, wildlife and habitats while reaching energy generation goals.  

“Through comprehensive planning, the conservation of ecosystem services can be ensured along with the welfare and preservation of the cultural heritage of the towns of the region, and the economic development of the country,” says Víctor Morales of CFE. 

The Coatzacoalcos offers a blueprint for how collaboration and comprehensive data and tools can highlight opportunities to balance energy with healthy rivers and communities. 

Other Resources

The Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol is a framework for evaluating the sustainability of hydropower projects to help decision-makers better plan, design, operate and manage projects. The Nature Conservancy, as part of the HSAP governance committee, supports widespread use of the Protocol to reduce risks to the environment, dam-affected people and to the hydropower business itself. Learn more about the Protocol by visiting hydrosustainability.org.


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