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The Next Economy
As Droughts Zap South America’s Hydroelectric Energy, What Can Be Done?

As our climate systems become more erratic, clean sources of energy will become ever more precious; and scaling and diversifying sustainable ways to harness it will be key to our survival.

Climate change is affecting all of us in numerous ways. From the penguins of Antarctica to corporate executives in Tokyo, everyone is feeling the effects of our shifting climate system in one way or another.

Whether we accept it or not, the cumulative effects of human industrial activities are altering the atmosphere in a way that severe droughts and floods are becoming much more common; and this may only be the beginning of what’s to come.

The Amazon rainforest, until recently dubbed the “lungs of the planet,” now releases more C02 than it absorbs — the result of deforestation and a rapidly changing climate.

This changing landscape, on a local and global level, has led to a record-breaking drought that has expanded beyond the Amazon itself and into neighboring countries and regions — with wildfires setting parts of Venezuela ablaze and Colombia experiencing a drought so severe that water restrictions are now inevitable in major cities such as Bogotá.

Showers and power — a growing crisis

The mayor of Colombia’s capital, Carlos Fernando Galán, has gone as far as instructing the city’s inhabitants to “shower as a couple” because “behavioral changes are key.”

But the threat goes beyond being able to take showers (either alone or together) and water lawns: Another challenge posed by the water shortages is power — especially since hydroelectricity is the country’s leading source of electricity.

Isagen, a leading producer of renewable energy that also powers much of the region with its hydroelectric power plants, is also feeling the pinch in a part of the world previously considered a hydro-paradise for its abundant water resources.

"Isagen and other hydroelectric generation companies have reported a noticeable decrease in water contributions during the final quarter of 2023 and the beginning of 2024," Ines Velez, the company’s corporate relations coordinator, told Sustainable Brands®.

The major player in Colombia’s energy market recently warned that — with two-thirds of the country’s electricity coming from hydroelectric sources — electricity generation is under threat due to the low levels of water in the country's reservoir.

Preparing for the future

Considering the growing effects of the climate crisis in this part of the world, the hydroelectric industry is preparing itself.

“Colombia’s vulnerability to natural disasters has become more pronounced,” Velez said. “And for this reason, we continue to implement our plans of mitigation and adaptation with regards to climate risks, measuring the climate footprint of our operations and maintaining our commitment to further reduce these emissions.

“Protecting natural resources and preserving ecosystems is vital for Isagen — which is working to recuperate and protect water basins and biodiversity, with our own programs and initiatives to protect these ecosystems,” she concluded.

But what happens if the rivers get too low for hydroelectricity to work at all? That would be tragic, and we can only hope such a situation never presents itself. But with the increasingly powerful effects of a climate system in disarray, the scenario cannot be ruled out.

Sustainable diversification is key

One potential remedy would be for the hydroelectric sector to invest more in other renewable energies — such as solar, wind power and even harnessing waste heat. The lack of rain in this corner of the world has been the result of a lack of clouds, which also means an abundance of sun. Solar energy is a still miniscule market in Colombia and its neighboring countries, and there is ample room for investment and growth in the sector.

Wind energy also has plenty of potential — with the abundance of mountains in the Andean countries of South America being ideal ground (if developed with the appropriate consideration for and cooperation with local Indigenous communities) for leveraging the stronger winds found at higher elevations.

Another prime location for wind power is just above the ocean: Offshore wind power has the capacity to produce more electricity than that on land; and its environmental footprint tends to be lower than land-based hydropower — which cuts off rivers, affecting wildlife both underwater and on land.

A country such as Colombia, which relies on hydropower for nearly 70 percent of its electricity, would benefit immensely from sustainable energy diversification. But Colombia’s exposed terrestrial water supplies are not alone in facing shocks from droughts — the same are already being seen and felt across much of the region and around the world.

As our climate systems become more erratic — the result of unsustainable energy consumption in our increasingly populated and industrialized world — clean sources of energy will become ever more precious; and scaling and diversifying sustainable ways to harness it will be key to our survival.