Public Opposition Slows Work to Tap Georgia’s Hydropower Potential
May 5, 2021
Mass protests occurred in western Georgia on April 3, 2021 following preparation for construction to resume on the controversial Namakhvani hydroelectric power station. Protesters rallied to end construction, asserting that dozens of families would be forced to relocate and hundreds more could suffer from adverse environmental and seismic effects. The project, which Turkey’s largest construction company ENKA is spearheading, has provoked sustained protests around the South Caucasus country since it was announced in October 2020. Georgia relies heavily on hydropower for electricity and has significant additional capacity. Georgia’s government has been eager to bolster its hydroelectric capabilities, including as an alternative to dilapidated fossil fuel generated power facilities.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia plunged into a deep recession that prompted government leaders to launch an economic reforms program in 1995. These economic reforms included an overhaul of the country’s power sector. In 2004, Georgia established the Georgian National Energy and Water Supply Regulatory Commission (GNERC) to facilitate the privatization and commercialization of its energy resources. Tbilisi initiated a campaign to harness the country’s vast hydropower reserves by awarding contracts for hydropower plant construction. These policies encouraged private companies to heavily invest in the hydropower sector, which now accounts for over 80 percent of Georgia’s generating capacity. Georgia’s 300 rivers suitable for hydropower facilities give the country the potential to generate a total of 135.8 billion kWh, placing Georgia among the world’s top hydropower producers.
Georgia has reaped economic benefits from its strong hydropower sector. Surplus electricity output in the spring and summer months allows the country to export electricity to Russia and Turkey. Georgia’s ability to export the surplus electricity generated by its hydropower plants also means a business opportunity for its private sector with the potential for increased foreign interest, including direct foreign investment.
Even though Georgia is keen on further developing its hydropower sector, residents in the mountainous areas where dams have been or would need to be built have been protesting since the 1980s. The Svan people, an ethnic minority inhabiting Georgia’s Upper Svaneti region, have been leading anti-hydropower rallies for decades. Many residents assert the projects will force them to relocate, resulting in the disruption to local ways of life and loss of their traditional homes. Protesters have also garnered national attention in recent years by denouncing Georgia’s unconstrained privitization and deregulation process. In 2019, protesters in Georgia’s northeastern Pankisi Gorge region clashed with police over construction of the Khadori-3 hydropower plant. Residents argued that the dam would leave them susceptible to preventable environmental impacts, including disrupted water flows, vulnerability to dam breaks, and mud slides. An example of the problems that can result occurred when the then newly constructed Larsi Dam was damaged by mud slides, which directly led to flying debris killing more than ten people in 2014.
The most recent series of protests began on November 22, 2020 when opponents of the Namakhvani HPP Cascade Project gathered in a village to demand Enka Renewables withdraw from the $800 million hydropower project. The completed project was slated to have a capacity of 433 MW and meet over 12 percent of the country’s total electricity consumption. However, an environmental impact report revealed that the dam would likely submerge three villages and isolate two others, forcing 297 households to resettle. Furthermore, the report highlighted the region’s seismic activity as a concerning factor.
While the country exports power in the spring and summer, electricity supplies in the winter are inadequate which means significant domestic shortfalls. Tbilisi looks to supply sufficient reserves of energy for the winter months by harnessing the country’s vast potential for clean hydropower while also addressing the concerns of its highland communities. The pattern in recent years has been for protests to halt work temporarily on the hydropower plants, with construction typically resuming within a year after the protests subside. It somehow seems the Georgian government should devise a better way to address public concerns and apprehensions over needed hydropower facilities or considering focusing more on the country’s solar or wind potential.