Problems With Mega Dams

April 13, 2014 in Problems With Mega Dams

International waters

By the end of the 20th century, the dam industry had choked more than half of the earth’s major rivers with some 50,000 large dams. The consequences of this massive engineering program have been devastating. The world’s large dams have wiped out species; flooded huge areas of wetlands, forests and farmlands; and displaced tens of millions of people. ———————–


 Courtesy of James Syvitski at Colorado University, who produced the video with Bob Stallard of the USGS and Albert Kettner at CSDMS. Data from Alex de Sherbinin (CIESIN, University of Colorado), and Bernhard Lehner (Department of Geography, McGill University).

The “one-size-fits-all” approach to meeting the world’s water and energy needs is also outdated:better solutions exist. While not every dam causes huge problems, cumulatively the world’s large dams have replumbed rivers in a massive experiment that has left the planet’s freshwaters in far worse shape than any other major ecosystem type, including tropical rainforests. In response, dam-affected communities in many parts of the world are working toresolve the legacies of poorly planned dams. Elsewhere (and especially in North America), communities are starting to take down dams that have outlived their usefulness, as part of a broader river restoration movement.

Impacts of Dams

Q: Why are healthy rivers important?

Healthy rivers are the lifelines of our planet, and provide many critical services for free. Rivers and their watersheds – and the rich variety of plants and animals which they sustain – provide people with water for drinking, watering crops, and washing, and with food, medicines, building materials, and more. They also filter out pollutants, mitigate floods and droughts, recharge groundwater supplies, and sustain fisheries. Rivers are also important byways for travel.

A river is much more than flowing water. Its ever-shifting bed and banks, the groundwater below, its surrounding forests, marshes and floodplain are all parts of the river. A river carries not just water, but just as importantly nutrient-rich sediments and dissolved minerals that replenish the land.

The river’s estuary, where fresh water mixes with the ocean’s salt, is one of the most biologically productive parts of the river – and of the planet. Most of the world’s fish catch comes from species that depend for at least part of their life cycle on estuarine habitat.

Q: How do large dams affect rivers and the environment?

The damming of great rivers is among the most dramatic, deliberate impacts that humans have on their natural environment. Nothing alters a river as totally as a dam.

A dam is an attempt to bring a river under control, to regulate its seasonal pattern of floods and low flows. A dam traps sediments and nutrients, alters the river’s temperature and chemistry, and upsets the geological processes of erosion and deposition through which the river sculpts the surrounding land. Such changes can throw an entire watershed out of ecological balance.

An estimated 50,000 large dams now block most big river systems. Dams now hold back 15% of the world’s annual freshwater runoff. If we want to sustain the world’s biodiversity and riverine goods and services, then we need to replace large dam building with alternate solutions.

Q: How do large dams affect people?

An estimated 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams. At present perhaps two million people are displaced every year by large dams. At least 500 million more people also suffer from the downstream impacts of dams, which can include loss of fisheries, decreased water quality and quantity, a decline in the fertility of farmlands and forests due to the loss of natural fertilizers and seasonal floods that healthy rivers provide.

In nearly every case, the majority of people evicted by dams end up further impoverished, and rarely share in project benefits. They suffer cultural decline, high rates of sickness and great psychological stress. The ones who suffer are typically those most marginalized in society – poor farmers and indigenous people. In some cases, people receive no or negligible compensation for their losses. Where compensation is given, cash payments are rarely enough to compensate for the loss of land, homes, jobs and businesses. Dam-affected communities are often promised great improvements such as electricity, new clinics and improved schools. Such promises are often broken.

For a brief visual introduction to dams, rivers and people, watch We All Live Downstream(slideshow), or watch the 22-minute film below, A River Runs Through Us.

Q: But aren’t dams a source of clean energy?

Dams are not “clean” sources of electricity because of their serious social and environmental impacts. In addition, studies reveal that dam reservoirs are significant sources of greenhouse gases. In some cases, especially in the tropics, reservoirs can produce more greenhouse gases than even the dirtiest fossil fuel power plants. The Balbina Dam in the Brazilian Amazon is estimated to produce 20–40 times the amount of carbon dioxide produced by coal fired power plants.

Q: Don’t dams produce cheap electricity?

Economically speaking, hydroelectricity is cheap to produce – once the dams are built. The problem is the huge costs of building dams and the long time it takes to build them. Actual costs for hydropower dams are almost always far higher than estimated; in a number of cases, the actual cost was more than double the estimated cost. The Itaipu Dam in South America cost $20 billion and took 18 years to build. This was 488% higher than originally estimated.

Dams often produce less power than promised – and as climate change is expected to change river hydrology in many parts of the globe, power output from dams could become even more unreliable. Dam promoters do not take into account the risk of climate change impacting their projects, which adds to the already optimistic cost-benefit estimates that characterize so many dam projects. In addition, the transmission lines needed to distribute the power generated by the dam are often inefficient and expensive. Too often in many poor countries where large dams are being built, electricity grid coverage is very limited, and the cost of extending the grid from a remote dam to where the need is greatest is not included in project costs. When these factors are taken into account, hydropower is actually a very costly form of power generation.

Q: What forms of power generation do large dam critics support?

No energy source is a “silver bullet” for meeting the world’s growing energy needs. The key is toopenly assess energy needs against the various options for meeting that need, while also being honest about the costs and benefits (and the distribution of these costs and benefits) that various project options would bring. Energy needs must also be balanced against other societal goods, such as those provided by healthy rivers.

One of the first “sources” of energy we should look to is energy efficiency. Electricity use in most parts of the world is extremely wasteful. The priority before building new power plants should always be to improve the efficiency of existing energy supply and use. Energy losses through inefficient systems can be huge even in developing countries with low production of electricity. As an example, almost 50% of power generated in India is lost before reaching the consumer. Indian energy analysts have estimated that improved efficiency could provide the entire increase in energy supply supposed to be needed over the next decade, at a fraction of the cost of new supply.

When new power plants are clearly needed, prioritizing the use of decentralized renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar, geothermal (and perhaps in future, wave power and other technologies) has many advantages. Small dams can be a sustainable and economic source of electricity, especially in rural areas – as long as they are designed to protect basic river functions such as fish migration and sediment flow. All of these options can help bring electricity to the parts of the world that need it most: rural communities far from national electricity grids.

Q: How can we reduce poverty in developing countries unless we exploit all available power sources, including hydro?

Like other investments, funding for the power sector in developing countries is limited. Better processes for selecting energy projects can help avoid the political favoritism (and even bribery) that now often influences the decision-making process, and too often leads to white-elephant dams being built.

The World Commission on Dams
, an international panel that provided the first independent and comprehensive assessment of dams, devised an approach to dam-planning in which affected communities negotiate their own compensation packages, and become primary beneficiaries of dam projects’ benefits. Dams planned using the commission’s recommendations and guidelines are more likely to go forward only after carefully analyzing all available options, and through a fair and transparent planning process. A few countries – for example, South Africa – have taken steps to incorporate the WCD’s recommendations into their planning processes for water and energy projects.

Q: What about the jobs produced by dams?

In developing countries (where most dams are being built today), most jobs to design and build dams go to highly trained engineers and contractors who are brought in to build the project, not local people or even citizens of that country. Maintaining dams provides fewer jobs, so the long–term jobs benefit is often minimal. Wind power creates 4–10 times more jobs per unit of output than large hydro (and biomass and solar power can create many more jobs than wind).

Q: Are dams an effective method of stopping flood damage?

When a dam is built for flood control and other uses, the floodplain no longer serves the ecological function it once did for the community, and more people move into the most flood–prone lands, believing they will be protected from all floods. The dam reduces the frequency of floods, but does not prevent the biggest, most damaging floods from occurring. The result: more expensive damages from floods than ever before. A “soft path” to flood management would better prepare us to adapt to and work with the forces of nature

Q: What about water storage – surely, we need dams for that?

Water storage is a critical need in all parts of the world, and of growing concern due to population growth and climate change. There are many ways to improve not only how we store water, but also how we conserve it.

Better solutions tend to work with nature, rather than against it, and make effective use of “ecosystem services” provided by healthy watersheds and other ecological systems. And by relying on better technologies and more informed choices, these solutions seek to raise water productivity.

Working with nature is critically important to building resilience and reducing the energy costs associated with water delivery and use. Healthy rivers and watersheds, for instance, filter out pollutants, mitigate floods and droughts, recharge groundwater supplies, and sustain fisheries. By contrast, all the technological alternatives – building and running a treatment plant to remove pollutants, artificially recharging groundwater, constructing dikes and levees, raising fish on farms – require external inputs of increasingly expensive energy.

Q: Are dams a safety concern?

The global stock of dams as a whole is aging, and as dams get old they become increasingly more expensive to maintain. Around the world, 5,000 large dams are at least 50 years old; the average US dam is in its forties. Worldwide, there is systematic underfunding of dam maintenance. It would cost billions of dollars to bring the world’s dams to safety. In addition, there is increasing concern that dams can trigger earthquakes from the weight of the reservoir, among other factors. Earthquakes also increase the probability of dam failure and the risk of downstream flooding.

Today, the biggest dam–safety challenge is climate change. The world’s more than 45,000 existing large dams have not been built to allow for a rapidly intensifying hydrological cycle. In this sense, all dams should now be considered unsafe. While the climatic future is filled with uncertainties, climatologists almost universally agree that we will see (and indeed are already seeing) more extreme storms and increasingly severe floods – which will have major implications for dam safety.

Q: What is “dam decommissioning”?

The United States, whose 5,500 large dams make it one of the most dammed countries in the world, has stopped building large dams, and is now spending great amounts of money trying to fix the problems created by existing dams. Many US communities are revitalizing their rivers by taking down or otherwise “decommissioning” dams that are no longer safe or serving a justifiable purpose. Over the past decade hundreds of dams have been removed from US rivers, opening up habitat for fisheries, restoring healthier water flows, improving water quality, and returning aquatic life to rivers.

Q: Do critics of large dams oppose all dams?

In general, no. They do believe that dams (and other development projects) should only be built after all relevant project information has been made public; the claims of project promoters of the economic, environmental and social benefits and costs of projects are verified by independent experts; and only if affected people agree that the project should be built.

Dam Basics

Fact sheets:

Egypt tries to woo South Sudan in Nile water dispute

April 3, 2014 in Egypt and South Sudan

 By Ayah Aman

Men work to build a flood barrier to protect their houses from the rising water of the White Nile River in South Khartoum, Aug. 26, 2013. (photo by REUTERS)

CAIRO — Egypt is continuing to develop relations with South Sudan in an effort to protect Egyptian water interests within its borders, through which the White Nile flows. This comes at a time when the dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Nile’s waters is escalating.

Summary⎙ Print Egypt is seeking to develop ties with South Sudan as its relations with Ethiopia and Sudan deteriorate over the distribution of Nile water.

Author Ayah AmanPosted March 31, 2014

Translator(s)Tyler Huffman

“Since the secession of South Sudan [from Sudan almost three years ago], Egypt has been trying to get the country into the Arab League to ensure that a language of understanding and communication exists,” an Egyptian diplomatic source at the Arab League told Al-Monitor.

The source, who requested anonymity, spoke of a March 8 meeting toward this end between Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, and South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin. “Elaraby requested that Juba have an official presence in the League, to allow for the provision of Arab support that [South Sudan] has requested. A memorandum of understanding was agreed upon for cooperation in the fields of economy, health and education, and there are currently consultations so that it can be signed soon,” he asserted.

“We do not have indicators confirming that South Sudan intends to join the Arab League at this time … but the political problems that worsened after the recent coup attempt led by Vice President Riek Machar reinforced Juba’s demands for Arab aid and support to the political administration led by President Salva Kiir,” he added.

On March 9, South Sudan participated for the first time in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, held in Cairo. At the gathering Benjamin explained the political situation in his country and sought support in confronting his country’s internal problems. Speaking to Al-Monitor on March 11, during his visit to Cairo, Benjamin said, “We look forward to more Arab support, and we cannot compromise relations with Egypt and [other] Arab countries. We are still a nascent state that needs to open up to all countries of the world.”

Benjamin downplayed the prospects of South Sudan joining the Arab League. “We have no desire to join the [Arab] League as an active member, but we look forward to strengthening [our] Arab relations. President Salva Kiir will soon visit a number of Arab countries, and we anticipate opening embassies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”

Egypt has stepped up its diplomatic activity vis-à-vis South Sudan following the recent political tensions in Juba. Cairo participated for the first time in peace negotiations between the parties to the conflict, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy offering mediation and political support at talks in Addis Ababa on March 22. Cairo also offered to participate in the UN peacekeeping force to restore stability in Juba, according to a March 23 announcement by a spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Ambassador Ehab Badawi, following a visit to Cairo by the South Sudanese defense minister, Lt. Gen. Kuol Manyang Juuk.

Col. Philip Oqoir, spokesman for the South Sudan Ministry of Defense, further told Al-Monitor, “There is now military coordination between Cairo and Juba. We agreed to strengthen the capacity of the army in South Sudan through training agreements with the Egyptian military colleges.” He added, “Cairo understands well the challenges faced by South Sudan. We still have problems with developing the army because of the armed conflict and the ongoing fighting with armed militias.”

Egypt’s concern about the political tension and instability in South Sudan stems from its interests in the Nile’s waters. For Cairo, South Sudan is the most important Nile Basin country because of the possibility of implementing projects to increase Egypt’s share of the river’s water by harnessing water currently lost on South Sudanese territory to forests and swamps.

In 1975, Egypt sought to dig the Jonglei Canal, with the hope of it providing 7 billion cubic meters of water annually. The project, however, was halted in the aftermath of the civil war between north and south Sudan, and since then Cairo has not been able to resume work. Furthermore, the Egyptian government is extremely concerned by Juba’s announced intention to join other Nile Basin countries in signing the Entebbe Agreement, which does not recognize Egypt’s historical rights to the Nile’s waters and calls for its redistribution.

According to former Egyptian Water Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, “Negotiations cannot be held with South Sudan regarding projects to increase [Egypt’s] water quota or harness lost Nile water.” He explained to Al-Monitor, “Most of the areas where these projects could be set up — in the Machar Marshes of the Sobat River and the Jonglei areas — are currently conflict zones. Egypt must change its perspective when it comes to carrying out these projects, whereby the goal should include developing local communities in South Sudan, not just harnessing lost Nile water for Egypt’s benefit,”

Although Egypt still hopes to open talks on completing the Jonglei Canal, South Sudan has declared its opposition to the project. The potential negative environmental impact of the project and the possibility of local tribes in the Jonglei region benefitting from it have not been studied, according to a press statement issued by Anthony Kon, South Sudan’s ambassador to Cairo, in September 2013.

Egypt’s current shaky relations with Sudan are also a key factor in the desire to expand ties with Khartoum’s southern rival. Helmi Shaarawy, founder of the Arab and African Research Center, told Al-Monitor, “The main reason for the lack of relations between Cairo and Juba was the government of northern Sudan. [Khartoum] frequently sought to distance Cairo from the issue of the south and isolated it from the secession talks. Now, however, we must revive these relations, after the actions by Khartoum, which takes risks regarding Egypt by supporting Ethiopia, and considerations related to the convergence between [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir’s Islamic-oriented government and the ousted regime in Egypt.”

Shaarawy added, “Supporting South Sudan is no longer an option for Cairo. Rather, it is a necessity in light of the impasse and challenges facing Egypt in maintaining its water interests in the Nile, and given Ethiopia’s audacity to build the Renaissance Dam, which could affect water flows to Egypt. Moreover, we cannot let Ethiopia stand alone in its relationship with the Juba government.”

The conflict environment of the war between armed militias in South Sudan is still the main obstacle for Egypt in its efforts to secure its strategic and water interests in the Nile River. Despite statements by officials asserting the strength of the relationship between the two countries, the reality poses challenges for the Egyptian administration in obtaining more water from South Sudan.