Sin No More: WWF on How Not to Build a Dam
There’s no stopping the flow of energy demands in today’s energy-hungry world. But this is no excuse to either neglect or outright violate fundamental sustainability criteria when building facilities like power plants, nuclear reactors, or dams.
In terms of decision making, focusing on short-term interests to the disadvantage of other interests is a grave error, implies the WWF Report “Seven Sins of Dam Building“. The report looks at nine dams around the world that has violated one or more sustainability criteria such as biodiversity, social factors, and project location.
Hydroelectric power continues to be one of the cheapest and most widely used form of electricity generation today, supplying 16% of the world’s electricity. While hydroelectric power represents an overwhelming 86% of all electricity generated by renewable energy, it remains associated with several environmental issues. These include environmental damage, contribution to declines in freshwater biodiversity, and disruption of freshwater ecosystem services that affect local livelihoods among others.
The dams that are being built to meet energy demands may supply a significant portion to meet energy demands, but may exact high costs in return. WWF lists seven ways dam project developers and proponents commit sins of dam building.
The first sin of dam building doesn’t get any simpler than building on the wrong river. A wrong choice of dam location can affect everything from downstream flows to fostering cumulative impacts on communities and the environment. Proper assessment using appropriate tools like the RSAT help in identifying sites which should be off-limits for hydropower development.
While dams visibly turn upstream rivers into stagnant reservoirs, neglected downstream flows also suffer and are often overlooked. Water quality, sedimentation, and loss of ecosystem services are affected by neglected downstream flows due to poorly constructed dams. WWF advises implementing effective environmental flow regimes to achieve sustainable dam operations.
Neglecting biodiversity will always be a mistake not only in dam buildings but also in other infrastructure projects. Dams that neglect biodiversity can cause loss of habitat and fragmentation of both terrestrial and aquatic connectivity. If a dam project will contribute to possible extinction of endangered species, it is better for the project not to proceed.
Falling for bad economics underlines the WWF campaign in 2003: “The true cost of a dam never shows up on a balance sheet.” Many large dam projects play up economic benefits and profits while neglecting social and environmental costs. WWF advocates thorough assessments that include market uncertainties under climate change scenarios.
The welfare of communities affected by dam projects should be included in decision making, or developers will commit the sin of failing to acquire the social license to operate. Conflict arise when resettlement and downstream livelihood issues are set aside due to poor consultation and communication between parties. Project developers should maintain and improve relations with social groups who will be affected by their project in order to secure a “social license” to operate and gain community acceptance.
Cutting corners and taking shortcuts in large projects like dam building almost always result in mishandling risks and impacts. More often that not, skipping thorough assessment and preparations cost more time, effort, and resources than they seem to save as project developers jump from one emergency to another. “Open-eyed” approach to obvious risks and potential negative impacts can help developers avoid this ‘sin’.
Engineering “can-do” mindsets in water resource managements can lead to possible overdevelopments of water resources, simply because developers blindly follow a bias to build. As with other mistakes in dam building, planners might favor playing up benefits and downplaying risks to proper project assessment. An atmosphere of self-interest, incentivicing, and exclusive collusion of project proponents make it easy for developers to commit the seventh sin of dam building.
The seven sins of dam building are not only harmful in the long run, but also unnecessary. Less expensive, less damaging, and better alternatives to detrimental dam building exist today. Simple improvements such as turbine replacements and increasing storage capacities can go a long way toward reversing existing damages to the environment. Dr. Jian-hua Meng, Water Security Specialist for WWF, says that dams can contribute to food and energy security – but only when they are properly planned, built, and operated. Knowing how not to build a dam in respect to communities and the environment matters as much as knowing how to technically and efficiently build one.
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