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Measures to enhance the resilience of Latin American hydropower

What is climate resilience?

Climate resilience is associated with three key dimensions: robustness, resourcefulness, and recovery.

  • Robustness is the ability of an energy system to withstand the gradual, long-term changes in climate patterns and continue operation. For example, improved catchment management could make hydropower plants more resilient to a gradual increase in streamflow variability.
  • Resourcefulness is the ability to continue operation during immediate shocks such as extreme weather events. For example, a hydropower plant with a flood control reservoir is more likely to sustain a minimum acceptable level of operation in the face of floods than one without a reservoir.
  • Recovery is the ability to restore the system’s function after an interruption resulting from climate hazards. A more resilient electricity system with a well-coordinated contingency plan for communications, alternative assets and workforce will recover faster from the interruptions caused by climate impacts.

Conceptual framework for climate resilience of the electricity system

Conceptual Framework For Climate Resilience
Conceptual framework for climate resilience of the electricity system
Conceptual Framework For Climate Resilience
Benefits of climate resilience

Renewable energy is expected to grow rapidly in the path toward clean energy transitions. The IEA World Energy Outlook’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) estimates that the share of renewables in global total primary demand would increase from 14% in 2019 to 35% in 2040, leading future energy transitions. The rise of renewables is especially marked in the power sector where the share of renewables almost quadruples, from 16% in 2019 to 57% in 2040, with a substantial increase in variable renewable energy. To meet the Sustainable Development Goals and deliver the Paris Agreement, over 400 GW of renewable capacity needs to be added every year from 2020‑2030.

With the growing importance of renewables in the power sector, hydropower is expected to play a significant role in achieving sustainable energy for all and mitigating climate change. In Latin America, where hydropower has been the biggest source of electricity for many years, the share of hydropower is projected to expand further. Aligned with the global vision toward clean energy transitions, the share of hydropower in total primary demand for power sector would increase from 33% to 39% in Central and South America between 2019 and 2040.

The increasing share of hydropower is also likely to support further deployment of other low-carbon energy technologies, providing power system flexibility. Power system flexibility is the ability to effectively cope with variations in the supply or demand of electricity, balancing total load and generation at any time. In systems with a high share of variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, system flexibility is important to maintain system balance. With the efforts for carbon emissions reduction and clean energy transition, power systems will need to cope with increased flexibility requirements.

Indeed, in most of selected Latin American countries, the share of variable renewables in total electricity generation has increased. For instance, the share of solar PV and wind has increased by over 30% in Uruguay, and by over 10% in Brazil, Costa Rica and Chile since 2000. The expansion of variable renewable energy and the decreasing capacity of conventional thermal power plants, call for further flexibility solutions in the region.

Hydropower could offer a cost-effective flexibility solution to balance the variability of other renewables. Reservoir and pumped storage hydropower can be used to provide flexibility, energy storage and ancillary services. Although coal- and gas-fired power plants still provide the bulk of power system flexibility, hydropower already offers the largest portion of flexibility in some countries, including Brazil.

Climate resilience is essential for hydropower to continue delivering its function in the path of clean energy transitions. Without enhancing climate resilience, adding new capacity and flexibility services can quickly be disrupted by increasingly frequent extreme precipitation events and their associated hazards. For instance, in Colombia, large landslides after a heavy rainfall resulted in a blockage of the diversion tunnels at the Ituango hydropower project site in May 2018. The premature filling of the reservoir damaged infrastructure and equipment, and delayed commissioning of the hydropower plant. Similarly, landslides after torrential rains in Peru severely damaged the Callahuanca hydropower plant in early 2017; the damage was so devastating to the entire system that the power station had to be shut down for two years.

Climate resilient hydropower with a multipurpose water storage capacity can bring benefits to water management. Hydropower’s reservoir capacity can act as a storage buffer against increasing water variability due to climate change, providing reliable water supply for irrigation and drinking. The multipurpose water storage of hydropower can also contribute to food security by enhancing water security, and provide better economic returns than other reservoirs built for irrigation or domestic supply.

More frequent floods and droughts and their associated events, such as landslides and wildfires in some parts of Latin America, would also highlight the role of hydropower in water management. Improved water management with sufficient water storage for hydropower can prevent large economic losses from extreme precipitation events, particularly in vulnerable countries. Enhanced resilience for hydropower infrastructure ensures hydropower operation will bring benefits not only to electricity generation but also to water security. 

Measures of climate resilience

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to enhance hydropower plants’ resilience. Although climate change will have impacts across Latin America, the wide range of patterns and the magnitude of potential climate impacts makes it difficult to develop a generic solution. A tailored combination of resilience measures based on a systematic assessment of climate risk and impact will help countries and operators increase their systems’ resilience.

Resilience measures comprise strategic, operational and physical arrangements, and can be categorised into “soft” and “hard” measures. Soft measures consist of strategies, policies, and actions related to the planning, operational management and recovery of the hydropower system. Hard measures are associated with the physical enhancement of assets, such as technical and structural improvements to hydropower plants.

Examples of possible soft and hard measures for the resilience of Latin American hydropower

Soft measures

Hard measures

Strategies and regulations for resilience

  • Develop metrics and assessment approaches for assessing climate risks, impacts and resilience of hydropower projects
  • Incorporating assessment results into longer-term planning measures, when considering development of the future energy mix
  • Create a regulatory framework to develop and enforce rules to enhance climate resilience
  • Incentivise the implementation of climate resilience and risk mitigation measures (e.g. early warning systems, introduction of standards for climate resilience)
  • Introduce other relevant regulations (e.g. restriction of land development in vulnerable or critical areas such as catchments)

Hardening and redesigning infrastructure

  • Enhance reservoir capacity
  • Increase dam height
  • Modify canals or tunnels
  • Modify the type of turbines more suited to expected water flow rates
  • Build upstream sediment control facilities
  • Manage suspended solids and sediments
  • Increase flood fences to protect power station
  • Strengthen banks
  • Relocate the powerhouse to higher ground
  • Modify spillway capacities to flush silted reservoirs

Improving planning and operating rules

  • Consider possible climate impacts when designing hydropower plants
  • Revise operating regimes of a plant reflecting projected climate impacts

Introduction of new technology

  • Digitalise data collection and monitoring
  • Adopt smart technologies in operation and maintenance

Emergency response and recovery

  • Establish plans for emergency response and recovery
  • Establish communication channels for better co‑ordination among stakeholders in the event of emergency response (e.g. emergency release of water from dams)
  • Train human resources for emergency response and recovery

Upstream management

  • Manage a catchment (e.g. forestation)
  • Build smaller dams upstream

Sources: IEA (2020), Climate Impacts on African Hydropower,; IHA (2019), Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide,; WBCSD (2014), Building a Resilient Power Sector. ttps://; IEA (2016), “Energy, Climate Change and the Environment”; The Global Energy Challenge.

Soft measures can be adopted and implemented by both governments and operators. Based on a scientific and comprehensive assessment of climate risk and impact, governments and operators could take measures that would incorporate the assessment results into longer-term planning measures and development of an energy mix, which is more resilient and less vulnerable to climate change. The assessment of climate risk and impacts could also support decisions for the construction, operation, maintenance and modernisation of hydropower plants. International organisations such as the World Meteorological Organization, the International Hydropower Association and the World Bank provide tools for climate risk and impact assessments, along with guides for building and enhancing the climate resilience of hydropower.

Governments can also encourage power generators to pay more attention to climate resilience by creating a regulatory framework that incentivises the implementation of resilience measures. For example, governments can create criteria for “climate resilient” hydropower projects and provide financial support for the inclusion of climate resilience in the planning and design for future assets and modernisation. The financial incentivisation can be implemented in collaboration with lending institutions (such as international financial institutions). Other relevant regulations, such as restricting land development around vulnerable catchment areas, can also reduce the probability of serious damage from climate hazards.

Power generators and project developers can better consider the potential impact of climate change when they design and plan hydropower plants. For existing hydropower, power generators can adapt to climate change by revising operating regimes in a manner that responds to projected climate impacts. For instance, generators can integrate a climate resilience monitoring process into operation and maintenance plans to help them regularly collect information related to future climate risks and assign clear responsibilities.

In addition, stronger and more co-ordinated emergency response measures with an early warning system can reduce recovery time, thereby limiting the impacts of climate change. For instance, regulators and commissions can develop emergency response plans with local authorities and operators to enhance resilience to extreme weather events. Governments can also support household and business emergency preparedness by improving institutional coordination and disseminating information.

Most hard measures are related to hardening physical systems, introducing new technologies and upstream management. Enhancing reservoir capacity, increasing dam height, modifying turbines and redesigning spillways can also help manage erratic water flow patterns. Redesigning canals or tunnels can also contribute to better management of the variability of water levels by adapting to changed discharge patterns. In addition, an enlarged reservoir may help hydropower plants reduce their vulnerability to floods by limiting overflow, while reducing the adverse impacts of droughts by providing an augmented level of water storage.

In countries likely to experience more frequent, intense rainfalls in forthcoming decades, hard measures to prevent overflowing will be particularly important. For instance, upstream sediment control facilities, flood fences for power stations, more robust banks and relocation of powerhouses to raised areas can reduce the potential impact of floods.

Introduction of new technologies to hydropower operation and maintenance can enhance climate resilience. A digitalised system for data collection and monitoring can improve the quality of data and support better understanding of climate risks and impacts. Adopting smart technologies can support faster and more accurate detection of failure points; this could also enable automated and predictive maintenance, decreasing the possibility of unplanned outages.

Upstream management can help to enhance hydropower plant resilience. For example, building small dams upstream can help improve management of the increased water flow. Forestations around upstream catchments can also contribute to preventing landslides.

Policy recommendations

Governments can send a strong signal to service providers and developers by mainstreaming climate resilience in their national policies. For instance, the National Adaptation Plan to Climate Change of Brazil, published in 2016, clearly shows the government’s interest in resilient hydropower infrastructure with a dedicated chapter. This chapter broadly covers hydropower’s resilience to climate impacts, suggesting actions to enhance the energy sector’s climate resilience. Proposed actions include studies on climate impacts, a greater engagement of stakeholders and efforts to improve planning tools. The National Adaptation Plan to Climate Change of Guatemala published in 2018, also highlights the need for climate resilience of hydropower against extreme weather events and emphasises the importance of an emergency preparedness plan for each hydropower plant.

Although significant progress has been made to incorporate the climate resilience of hydropower in some countries, this still varies considerably across Latin America. Among the selected 13 countries, 6 countries have included climate impacts on hydropower and suggested actions in their national adaptation plans, while 7 countries are still developing their plans, or do not specifically mention hydropower. Countries that rely heavily on hydropower are recommended to consider the climate impacts on hydropower and include concrete actions that enhance the climate resilience of hydropower in their national adaptation policies.

Governments can also encourage developers and operators by adopting relevant regulations for climate resilience. For instance, incorporating resilience standards into construction codes requires developers to pay attention to climate resilience from an early stage of a hydropower project. Requirements for a regular climate risk assessment in operation and maintenance rules could raise awareness among operators of climate risks and impacts. Regulations for improved water management and protection of forestation would also reduce vulnerability and enhance climate resilience for Latin American hydropower.

The National Adaptation Plan of Brazil, announced in 2016, proposes actions, strategies and guidelines for managing climate risk. With the aim of identifying measures that promote adaptation and reduce the level of climate risk, the Plan broadly covers potential climate impacts on hydropower plants and suggests some measures to enhance climate resilience.

The Plan projects climate impacts on hydropower using two climate models (HadGEM2-ES and MIROC5), comparing two greenhouse gas concentration pathways (RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5). According to the projections, climate change accentuates differences in seasonal rainfall patterns between river basins of the Central‑South and those of the North. As an example of an adaptation measure, the Plan suggests enhanced interconnection between different river basins to fill the gap. Projections also estimate that hydropower plants of different sizes are likely to be affected by climate change in different ways: hydropower plants with large reservoirs may be able to mitigate the effect of streamflow variation, while run-of-river plants and others with small reservoirs would be more subject to climate variability. To better cope with the various impacts of climate change, the Plan recommends assessing climate risk to energy sector infrastructure with a focus on contingency plans for extreme weather events and promoting a greater engagement of energy institutions.1

The wide presence of ageing hydropower plants in Latin America requires modernisation of hydropower infrastructure. Over 50% of the installed capacity in Latin America is over 30 years old. Ageing hydropower plants are expected to require modernisation to address the projected increase in extreme precipitation events in addition to general rehabilitation. Some efforts, such as upgrading spillway capacities and increasing dam safety, will protect ageing hydropower plants against future climate hazards and help them adapt to new climate conditions.

Modernisation of hydropower plants in Latin America needs further investment. Access to financing is considered the main barrier for modernisation. For instance, a 30 year rehabilitation plan for the Salto Grande hydropower facility in Argentina and Uruguay would need USD 960 million to extend the plant’s lifespan and improve its efficiency. The modernisation project of Itaipu hydropower plants in Brazil and Paraguay will require an investment of USD 500 million.

Public investment has been playing a major role in financing modernisation of hydropower plants in some Latin American countries. For instance, a USD 500 million project for the upgrade and rehabilitation of Yacyretá hydropower plant was announced to be funded by the Yacyretá Binational Entity, a joint entity between the Governments of Paraguay and Argentina. This project will add 276 MW and will increase production by 9% with three new turbine generator units and extend the lifespan of 20 existing units. Similarly, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) offered a USD 125 million loan for modernisation of Acaray Hydropower plant.

Private investors are often reluctant to invest in rehabilitation and upgrade projects for some reasons: high uncertainties in climate projections and limited access to information on climate-related risks in some cases, could make private investment difficult; public ownership of many hydropower plants in Latin America can decrease the attractiveness of a rehabilitation project, as the renovated plant would become an integral part of a government owned asset.

Public financing institutions can play an important role in the modernisation projects for ageing hydropower plants by providing financial risk coverage instruments. Public investment could catalyse private financing by investing in a riskier tranche of the investment and providing catalytic first loss capital. A Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach with a pledge of sharing an appropriate portion of the profit with private investors in return for the investment could also attract more private investment. Financial risk coverage instruments, which are available from international financial institutions, can also mobilise further investment in rehabilitation projects by supporting utilities that lack adequate credit ratings to satisfy investors or provide supplementary guarantees to some countries with high political risk. For instance, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provided a USD 128 million loan for the modernisation of two hydropower facilities in Brazil, Furnas and Luiz Carlos Barreto de Carvalho, and a USD 700 million loan for Guri hydropower plant in Venezuela.

In Mexico, most hydropower plants are older than 50 years. The Mexican government announced a new national electricity program in late 2018, placing an emphasis on hydropower. It aims to increase hydropower installed capacity through modernisation and upgrades to 60 existing hydropower plants. To implement this plan, an additional investment of USD 985 million was also announced. The state-owned power utility of Mexico, Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), estimated that the renovation of hydropower plants could add another 3 300 MW of capacity, increasing the country’s generation capacity by 26%.2

Because hydropower generation is susceptible to a changing climate, the question is often raised about how it can be insured against adverse climate impacts such as extreme precipitation events. As damages from extreme weather events to hydropower plants are often too broad and serious, private insurance options might not be able to cover the full cost. For instance, a considerable damage to the Ituango hydropower plant caused by heavy rainfall and landslides in 2018, made the largest claims in the history of engineering: USD 2 556 million for recovery of infrastructure and equipment, plus profit loss of USD 628 million. Moreover, even if private insurance options could cover the damage to physical assets and lost revenue, the entire damage to society, national economy and attendant costs can hardly be compensated by private insurance.

Governments can consider public options for climate risk insurance. For instance, Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF), a multinational program, facilitates access to low cost, high quality disaster risk insurance for governments in Central America. Since 2007, it has offered insurance against tropical cyclones and excess rainfall, providing immediate financing resources and allowing governments to implement immediate emergency response and continue to provide critical services. An accessible and affordable climate risk insurance for hydropower infrastructure will significantly improve preparedness against climate hazards while helping to avoid excessive financial burdens on utilities.  

Comprehensive and scientific projections of climate risks and impacts on hydropower generation are essential to build climate resilience. Decision makers at governments and utilities would have difficulty choosing the most effective set of resilience measures for hydropower plants without accurate data and information about potential climate risks and impacts. According to a recent study from World Bank, a project to build a resilient infrastructure without appropriate climate risk data will cost ten times more than a project that has sufficient information.

However, climate models often present a low agreement and even conflicting results about future precipitation and runoff in certain parts of Latin America. For instance, some of the latest models anticipate less precipitation and decreasing runoffs in the Amazon of Brazil under a high GHG concentration scenario (RCP 8.5), while previous models have forecasted a wetter climate.

To minimise disparities and improve climate projection accuracy, governments need to support scientific research on future climate patterns and their impacts. Governments can support climate scientists by increasing access to national climate data sources, consistently updating information systems, developing guidelines and providing financial support for climate research. For instance, governmental support for the expansion of climate monitoring networks in Central America where climate and hydrometric measurement stations are sparsely scattered will improve the understanding of water availability for hydropower generation.

Already, several governments, international organisations and academia are working together to create more accurate climate projections and more comprehensive models. For instance, IPCC and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) have dedicated to combine modelling results and observation data on climate change across the world, overcoming gaps in data availability, quality and consistency. Europe-South America Network for Climate Change Assessment and Impact Studies (CLARIS) and its subsequent project, CLARIS-La Plata Basin, are a collaborative research projects of research organisations of Europe and South America for a high-quality climate database for temperature and precipitation, and improved prediction capacity of climate change in South America. 

Notes and references
  1. Ministry of Environment, Brazil (2016) National Adaptation Plan to Climate Change.

  2. Hydroreview (2018), Mexico’s new energy plan places strong emphasis on hydroelectric generation; Godoy, E. (2020), Mexico’s Plan to Upgrade Hydropower Plants Faces Hurdles.