Ecuador’s hydroelectric energy growth conflicts with international law

QUITO, ECUADOR:  A panoramic view of Pichincha Volcano in the city of Quito, 02 October 1998.</p>

QUITO, ECUADOR: A panoramic view of Pichincha Volcano in the city of Quito, 02 October 1998.

QUITO, Ecuador — The Andean Countries are looking to significantly boost their domestic energy production on an unprecedented scale. Currently, there are 151 proposals to build hydroelectric dams in four Andean countries, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. If built, they would mean a 300 percent increase over the current number of dams in these countries.

Ecuador, in particular, has launched hydroelectric infrastructure projects to enhance the country's electricity production capacity resulting from a recent increase in per capita electricity consumption.

The rise can be attributed to steady macro-economic growth and government policies that have provided segments of the Ecuadorian population with newfound access to services such as electricity, telephone and Internet.

Another factor that has contributed to the growing power demand is tied to various state-lead incentive programs, which have cut Ecuadorians’ monthly electricity bills by installing electrically powered stoves and energy efficient refrigerators in Ecuadorian households. In its efforts to meet the growing demand, Ecuador doubled its hydroelectric production capacity from 2007 to 2013.

Ecuador's hydroelectric energy expansion is a critical part of Ecuador's strategy to reduce the effects of climate change. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Strategic Resources expects hydroelectric energy to reduce the country's total carbon output by 11 million tons per year.

Currently, Ecuador accounts for less than 1 percent of the world's CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, the Ecuadorian government is seeking to assume greater responsibility for its tiny role in world CO2 emissions by investing in renewable energies such as hydroelectricity.

Some scientists are concerned that the proliferation of large-scale hydroelectric development projects will have devastating consequences on local ecosystems and may fundamentally alter hydrological river dynamics. A report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean (ECLAC) questions the long-term sustainability of hydroelectricity.

The study noted the possible impact of receding glaciers on hydroelectric energy in the Andean region, which could contribute to a shortage of fresh water. A decline in fresh water runoff from high altitude glaciers will most certainly have serious implications on the long-term viability of hydroelectric energy. The IPCC estimates the impacts on economic activities associated with potential scenarios of glacier melt reduction to be about $100 million in the case of water supply for Quito, Ecuador’s capital city.

Despite raising legitimate environmental concerns, Western environmental NGOs have been critical of the Ecuadorian government for promoting extra-activist development policies, while failing to acknowledge the unfair reality of climate change.

Developing countries like Ecuador cannot fulfill domestic energy demands with cheap and dirty energy, without worsening the climate crisis. They are often unable afford the expensive costs of switching to renewable energies.

The Rio Declaration and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), both cited international law that protects developing countries’ "right to develop." The law gives priority to fulfilling developing countries’ basic socio-economic needs over the need to address climate change.

The document states that policies aimed at climate change should be carried out in conjunction with consideration for the social and economic development priorities of developing countries.

The “right to develop” concept was recognized yet again at the recent G77 conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in which leaders signed the Declaration of Santa Cruz acknowledging the "right to develop" as an important part of developing countries efforts to reduce poverty and meet basic needs.

Climate change has unfairly compromised the economic development agenda of developing countries precisely because they are the countries most negatively affected by climate change. This places them in a darned if you do and darned if you don't kind of scenario.

Until that dilemma is resolved, countries like Ecuador must continue to fulfill domestic energy needs while simultaneously expanding its renewable energy sector to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Nate Singham lives to Quito, Ecuador where he works for Telesur English.