Measures to enhance the resilience of African hydropower

What is climate resilience?

Climate resilience refers to the capacity to anticipate, absorb, accommodate and recover from the stress and changes caused by climate change (IEA, 2016; IPCC, 2012). It is associated with three key dimensions: robustness, resourcefulness and recovery (IEA, 2016).

  • Robustness is the ability of an energy system to withstand long-term and gradual changes in climate patterns and continue its operation. For instance, thermal power plants that use water from recirculation for cooling are considered more resilient to a gradual increase of water temperature than others that use external sources such as rivers, lakes or oceans.
  • Resourcefulness is the ability to manage operations during immediate shocks such as extreme weather events. For example, a hydropower plant with a flood control reservoir is likely to be more resilient to floods than others.
  • Recovery relates to the ability to restore the system’s function after an interruption resulting from climate impacts. For example, a more resilient power system with a well‑coordinated contingency plan is likely to recover from the shock caused by climate impacts faster than others.

The enhanced climate resilience of African hydropower can bring multiple benefits. Resilient hydropower systems can support uninterrupted electricity supply which is essential for delivering Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa. Although Africa has made strong progress on electricity access in past decades, the continent still needs to add 20 million people to the electricity network every year from now to 2030. In addition, the urbanisation and economic development of Africa will increase demand for reliable, affordable and quality electricity supply. Hydropower is a cost-effective option to meet the increasing demand while limiting emissions from the energy sector. Building climate resilient hydropower systems will help the continent meet its development and climate goals.

In addition, resilient hydropower stations can minimise losses and save costs from climate impacts. In most parts of Africa, investment in resilience measures, such as enhancing reservoirs and improving generation efficiency, could help utilities save costs for recovery and reduce losses from the underutilisation of hydropower (World Bank, 2015). For governments and communities, resilient hydropower systems can minimise the socio-economic costs incurred by climate change. For instance, a resilient hydropower will support a fast recovery from extreme weather events, bolstering the continuous provision of public services with an uninterrupted electricity supply after the shocks.

Resilient hydropower can also provide adaptation benefits, limiting climate impacts on water resources. The projected impacts of climate change may reduce accessibility to water resources and escalate spatial and seasonal variations in water availability. It can pose a significant challenge to many African countries which already suffer from water shortage. Resilient hydropower with a reservoir capacity can act as a storage buffer against climate change, providing reliable water supply for irrigation, potable water supply and flood control (Berga, 2016).

Enhancing the resilience of the hydropower plants in Africa is important to ensure a reliable electricity supply in the face of increasing climate impacts. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to enhance the resilience of hydropower plants because of the wide range of patterns and magnitude of potential climate impacts. A tailored combination of resilience measures based on a systematic assessment of climate risk and impact will help countries and operators increase the resilience of their systems.

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 African hydropower

Soft measures

Hard measures

Strategies and regulations for resilience


  • Plan a national energy mix based on the assessment of potential climate impacts
  • 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
  • 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

Upstream management


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

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


Source: IHA (2019), Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide; WBCSD (2014), Building a Resilient Power Sector; IEA (2016), Energy, Climate Change and the Environment: 2016 Insights, (Report, November 2016),

The implementation of resilience measures can help African hydropower plants reduce (though not fully eliminate) the risk of climate-related disruptions (OECD, 2018) and withstand long-term changes in climate patterns. The aim is to allow plants to continue operating (“robustness”), to manage operations during the disruptions caused by extreme weather events (“resourcefulness”), and for plants to recover function after disruptions (“recovery”).

Examples of soft measures

Soft measures can be adopted and implemented by both governments and utilities. Governments can play a central role in enhancing resilience by introducing strategies and appropriate regulations. Based on a scientific and comprehensive assessment of climate risk and impact, governments could, if necessary, actively plan for an energy mix to improve the resilience of the electricity system. This could entail the development of certain energy sources that are less vulnerable to climate change. For instance, countries in the Congo and Zambezi river basins that are reliant on hydropower could consider diversifying their renewable energy sources given the projected increase in climate impacts on their hydropower capacity.

Governments can also encourage utilities to pay more attention to climate resilience by creating a regulatory framework that incentivises the implementation of resilience measures (OECD, 2018). 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 restriction of land development around vulnerable catchment areas can also reduce the probability of serious damage from climate hazards.

Utilities and project developers can enhance the resilience of new hydropower plants by taking into account the potential impact of climate change when they design and plan hydropower plants. For existing hydropower, utilities can adapt to climate change by revising operating regimes in a manner that responds to projected climate impacts. For instance, utilities can integrate a climate resilience monitoring process into operation and maintenance plans. It will help utilities regularly collect information on future climate risks and assign clear responsibilities.

In addition, stronger and more co‑ordinated emergency response measures can reduce the time for recovery 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 the emergency preparedness of businesses and households by improving institutional co‑ordination and information dissemination.

Examples of hard measures

Most hard measures are related to physical system hardening and upstream management. Enhancement of reservoir capacity, increased dam height, modification of turbines and redesign of spillways can help manage erratic patterns of water flow. For instance, the Qairokkum hydropower plant in Tajikistan is implementing a full rehabilitation project to enhance resilience to the projected increase in hydrological variability by modifying turbines and spillways (Green Climate Fund, 2015).

In addition, an enlarged reservoir may help hydropower plants reduce their vulnerability to floods by limiting overflow. An augmented level of water storage reservoirs can reduce the adverse impacts of droughts. Redesigning of canals or tunnels can also contribute to better management of the variability of water levels by adapting to changed discharge patterns.

In countries that are 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.

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

However, there are still major barriers to implementing measures to enhance the resilience of African hydropower:

There is a significant lack of reliable and accessible information about climate risks and impacts on hydropower in Africa. Many countries have limited observational data on climate and hydrology. Even if a country has meteorological and hydrological data, public access to the information could be limited. Therefore, models based on the available data often present conflicting or even misleading outcomes. For instance, there are still debates among international experts on the future precipitation patterns in southern Africa and the Sahara (IPCC, 2014). It is difficult to choose the most effective set of resilience measures without accurate data and information about potential climate impacts on hydropower plants (EEA, 2019).

There are few incentives for decision makers to invest in enhancing the climate resilience of hydropower plants. The benefits of investment in climate resilience measures on hydropower plants are likely to be seen only after several years or even decades, while the capital cost of implementing the measures is incurred immediately (OECD, 2018). Furthermore, the benefits of resilience tend to be spread across the value chain, while the immediate cost is likely to be imposed on service providers. These can make decision makers hesitant to initiate or implement resilience measures on hydropower plants, despite their longer-term benefits.

Unfavourable regulatory frameworks could discourage the implementation of climate resilience measures. The absence of climate resilience objectives in energy masterplans may send a misleading signal to developers and service providers, leading them to overlook climate resilience in the design, operation and maintenance process.

Some African countries still lacks the capacity to anticipate and cope with climate impacts. For instance, climate prediction and early warning systems are often constrained in Africa due to the lack of capacity (Ogallo and Oludhe, 2009). Limited understanding of the devastating impacts of climate variability and extreme weather events may hinder timely decision-making for the adoption and implementation of resilience measures.  

Policy recommendations for African hydropower

Governments need to play a central role in overcoming the existing barriers to implementing resilience measures. Without support from governments, private actors may have a limited incentive to implement resilience measures. However, if hydropower systems remain vulnerable to climate impacts, it will eventually bring higher costs to society, while electricity service providers would bear only a fraction of the entire socio-economic costs. Thus, governments need to send strong signals to the private sector to encourage their investment in building climate resilience.

Governments can provide technical support by commissioning research and making available quality data and information on climate change. Governments can also offer financial support for resilient hydropower projects. Adoption of policies, regulations and guidelines to mainstream climate resilience considerations into the entire process of hydropower projects will encourage operators to focus on climate risks and impacts. Capacity-building activities supported by governments will facilitate the implementation of resilience measures.

  • Recommendation 1: Ensure that a systematic and comprehensive assessment of climate risk and impact is available to all relevant stakeholders. Such an assessment is the first step towards climate resilience and should be organised systematically using scientific methodologies and established guidelines. Some governments, international organisations and academia have already introduced a few comprehensive methodologies to identify and assess climate risks to enhance the resilience of hydropower. Moreover, the assessment should be as comprehensive as possible. It is highly recommended for countries that have limited access to observed data, to utilise all available data sources and adopt various climate models so that the different results can be compared. A credible assessment of climate risk and impact will significantly reduce the cost of implementing resilience measures. According to a recent study, a project to build a resilient infrastructure without appropriate data on climate hazards and exposure will cost ten times more than a project which has sufficient information on climate risks (World Bank, 2019). 

There are several guidelines, standards and tools devoted to helping public and private entities to assess climate change risks on energy systems and to develop strategies and measures to enhance their resilience. These include:

  • The Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide, developed by the International Hydropower Association, provides a comprehensive methodology to identify, assess and manage climate risks to enhance the resilience of hydropower plants (IHA, 2019).
  • The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit was launched in November 2014 to help institutions to find and use tools, information and expertise to enhance climate resilience. Energy is included as one of the ten topics of the Toolkit, with a particular focus on climate impacts on energy security (NOAA, 2014).
  • The Department of the Environment and Energy of the Australian Government developed a framework called Climate Compass in August 2018. It was designed to help public officers to manage climate risks to policies, programmes and asset management (CSIRO, 2018).

Sources: IHA (2019), Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide; NOAA (2014), U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit; CSIRO (2018), Climate Compass A Climate Risk Management Framework for Commonwealth Agencies

  • Recommendation 2: Create the right incentives for electricity providers to align their interests with investments that are beneficial to the public. An adequate level of rewards and penalties based on the assessment of social and economic costs will encourage service providers to go beyond the minimum mandatory standards, seek cost-effective solutions, and invest in climate resilience measures (World Bank, 2019). Governments with limited financial resources could consider working with multilateral development banks or other support programmes of international organisations. 

International financial institutions have started creating programmes to support investments in climate-resilient projects. One notable example is the recent creation of the Climate Resilience Bond of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), launched in September 2019 (EBRD, 2019). This AAA-security, 5-year bond is the first ever to be entirely dedicated to financing climate resilience. It has raised USD 700 million at issuance, with demand from around 40 investors in 15 countries. Its proceeds will be used to finance (e.g. provide loans to) existing and new climate resilience projects within EBRD’s Climate Resilience Portfolio. These include investments in climate-resilient infrastructure (e.g. climate-resilient electricity generation, transmission and distribution), investments in climate-resilient business and commercial operations, and investments in climate-resilient agricultural and ecological systems. 

All the financed projects need to be consistent with the Green Bond Principles (International Capital Market Association, 2018) and the Climate Resilience Principles, published by the Climate Bonds Initiative in September 2019 (Climate Bonds Initiative, 2019). These principles prescribe a process to identify and assess climate change vulnerabilities, to mitigate the associated climate risks, and to establish the monitoring and evaluation system needed to appraise the climate resilience performance of the asset. 

Sources: EBRD (2019), 1.625% US$700 Million 5-Year Climate Resilience Bond Due 27 September 2024; International Capital Market Association (2018), Green Bond Principles; Climate Bonds Initiative (2019), Climate Resilience Principles.

  • Recommendation 3: Integrate climate resilience into national energy plans and regulations. Governments can send a strong signal to service providers and developers by mainstreaming climate resilience in the entire process of hydropower planning and operation. For instance, governments can consider including resilience standards into construction codes and asking for a regular climate risk assessment in the operation and maintenance rules. They can also facilitate further deployment of resilience measures by removing or adjusting conflicting regulations. For example, decision makers can streamline the process of granting environmental permits for certain resilience projects so that the required structural changes for climate resilience can be implemented more easily.
  • Recommendation 4: Build capacity of both public and private sector stakeholders. Even where data and information are available, and supportive regulations and incentives are in place, their appropriate use and implementation require skills that are not always available (World Bank, 2019). Governments can accelerate the implementation of resilience measures by supporting capacity-building for risk and impact assessments, forecasting and early-warning, emergency response, and recovery in public and private sectors. This will provide African hydropower plants with more accurate information on anticipated climate hazards and quickly restore their functions after damages.

The African Risk Capacity (ARC) is a specialised agency of the African Union. It is comprised of the African Risk Capacity Agency and the ARC Insurance Company Limited. It was established to help African governments improve their capacities to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters.

The ARC Capacity Building Programme, one of the ARC’s services, aims to prepare African countries for effective disaster risk management through the introduction of tools and processes that enhance response to natural disasters. In this programme, technical experts of African governments are trained on how to define the country’s climate risk profile using the ARC’s software, Africa RiskView, and get advisory support in developing a contingency plan.

Source: African Risk Capacity (2017), Capacity Building Programme Brochure.