More than 60% of the world's renewable electricity comes from hydropower. Yet, hydropower’s gigantic footprints have no place (and space) in sustainable development regardless of colourful words painted by governments, who still entrust them for the fossil fuel shift away.
Despite an attempt to shoot down greenwashing at COP26, many hydropower dam construction plans were sneaked into the approved Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) pledges. Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East nations are due to increase growth by 17% in hydropower capacity by 2030.
The soaring fossil fuel price underlines the inequality and urging for a reform of our economy surrounding energy, water, and food security. The hydroelectric sector was once seen as a part of the renewable energy future as water is naturally replenished by the water cycle. Despite this, the unsustainable footprint of the hydroelectric dam life cycle has become more realised. Days have gone when it was used to generate merely a single lamp, to this day that it accounted for an estimated 1 billion tons per year of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the operation, heated water stored, and carbon released from ecological degradation.
Some governments call it “renewable,” but research calls it “the overestimation of benefits and underestimation of costs.”
I would like to dedicate this article to the dam removal organisation in my hometown, where all great contributors, including my friends, have been working tirelessly to make our world a better place.
A MAGNIFYING GLASS ON GLOBAL ISSUES
A hydropower dam is an outdated engineered structure enabling humanity to maximise water extraction, fuel power generation, and control water inundation for downstreamer (The term “flooding” is avoided here, given the bad impression associating the word. This is because water inundation is a natural occurrence, at least before anthropogenic emission contributing to the risk).
The United Nations Development Programme representative believes that a hydropower dam is a magnifying glass on critical global issues concerning ecology, society, economy, and perspective. While constructing a large dam gentrifies local communities and excavates large-scale ecosystems, the operation of one is just as dramatically damaging. The obstructive anatomy of dams trapped sediment flow that helps build up a delta. Which intensifies water velocity, accelerates erosive shore, and deprives the formation of healthy soil and riparian landscapes which shelter biodiversity.
Aquatic species are trapped on both sides of the gate. I sometimes wonder if salmon would evolve to jump metres high anti-gravitationally across the structural wall before humanity would first undo such miscalculated intervention.
Many of the dams are currently located in the very same river basin. One of the reasons the plan sailed passed risk assessment is because the impact of each dam was assessed individually rather than the cumulative effect of multiple dams. A little tweak in a design such as a fish passage widening could improve the chance of an oversize dam proposal being approved. Therefore, Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and social impact assessments (SIAs) need to have real power to serve the people, not only dam-builders.
Water resources are scarce in some geographical regions such as most of South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern China and India, which will be a sustainability constraint to meet communities’ water needs. Dam-builders must realize that simply ramping up more storage capacity will not resolve water shortage but only result in an unfilled reservoir. The research suggested dams alter the flow of many watersheds, which could lead to, as scientists warn, more frequent droughts would occur in the coming years.
Avoiding emissions, empowering agriculture, ending poverty, or power hoarding?
The anatomy of rivers freely flow following their geomorphological container, although a single watershed could include many political boundaries. Dam structure restricts the flow to countries located downstream. Such a scene calls for international incorporation like the U.S - Canada Columbia River Treaty for both nations to share mutual benefits. British Columbia as a geographical advantage provides extra storage space and manages water flow in exchange for electricity. Nonetheless, it has emitted GHGs worth of two countries' footprint for the past 65 years.
In most cases, transboundary disputes over water access are not uncommon. China has over seven hydropower projects on the Mekong River, with twenty-one more cooking up, leading to diplomatic tensions between China and the lower riparian countries including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam who have Mekhong as their hydrologic backbone.
For thousands of years, neighbouring communities of over 60 million people, their culture and economy prospered from Mekhong original seasonal inundation, and plentiful aquaculture and agriculture provided. According to Climate Diplomacy, the imbalance of access to the river drove the construction of two Cambodian dams, up to nine more in Laos, while six Thai banks financed the dams from the fear of missing out on the benefits.
As it stands, the capacity of these dams was engineered under the assumption that China would let enough water flow during the dry seasons. Where China, themselves, never joined the conversation considering their upstream position and economic superiority until the U.S. influence over SEA that China was persuaded to listen — it is purely a battle of power. Still, the assessment reveals that the multiple dam construction could wipe out the largest aquatic species, including the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, and I couldn’t underline enough the loss of community livelihood.
Avoid repeating the history
Mega dams in North America and Europe built earlier than the 20th century have been removed rather than newly constructed as negative impacts have become too unacceptable. That, and the fact that optimal sites are nearly exhausted. Repairing old structures is less feasible than having diversified energy sources for North America and Europe, who have more access to renewable technology.
Building a hydroelectric dam is accounted for a development against poverty and inequality at the very least — a potential for immediate GDP growth. I mean, does it not sound like great achievements, connecting faraway villages to the national grid, and at the same time, making revenues from excessive power exported to other countries?
So, in recent years have seen the launch of hydropower dams construction, particularly in mega biodiversity river basins and resource-based economies, such as the Amazon, the Congo, and the Mekong. Ethiopia crowd funded their way to filling up a newly constructed hydroelectric dam (GERD), hoping it would revive an economic despair that resulted from wars, rising fuel prices, and the pandemic — to the displeasure of downstream neighbours like Egypt and Sudan.
Cheap hydroelectricity is attractive, but it is actually comparable to solar energy, slightly more expensive than wind, and cheaper than fossil fuel, the U.S Energy Information Administration analysed. In fact, in the village of Sélingué, irrigated paddy fields were proven harder and more expensive to cultivate than rain-fed grains. But then again, it is hard enough for a local rain-dependent farm to fairly compete with mass production, especially facing an increasingly unpredictable rain pattern. The same mass industrialization that fueled the rise in unsustainable hydropower dams and put a price on water resources in the first place.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to avoiding the repetition of history.
Rivers without borders
According to the research, common sense has shifted towards river restoration.
At COP26, 300 global organisations called upon the leaders to refrain from spending on building dams but instead funding the transition to more just clean energy.
In some cases, the hydropower development is going small based on the assumption that it creates a lesser impact due to the smaller space taken up. But they are not a better alternative. Because we cannot forget about the cumulative impacts of multiple small dams, and the fact that they require less permitting effort.
Although, the proposal for dam removal can be challenging due to diverse political, economic, and cultural climates. Thanks to ‘common sense,’ cultural context and non-monetary ecosystem services of nature are truly legit justification for dismantling dams. The ecological impact during the dismantling process would occur until nature took her course, merging two ecosystems blocked by barriers.
The way we harness water has to change and we need not look elsewhere for a solution but in nature. Cape Town was brought to the brink of a water catastrophe that the town bid on the water restriction before they saw the citizens queuing for a daily ration of water. Despite conserving the dam operation, the town invested in headwater restoration, removing water-hungry non-native species, and better water allocation.
If it’s flooded, wouldn’t it be better to restore natural protective systems and rain harvesting mechanisms like mangroves, wetlands, lakes, underground water, and floodplains? And during a drought episode, wouldn’t it be better if we draw from the same natural reservoirs. Meaningful adjustments could be established especially in arid regions, for example, secure supplies through proper water and energy management, water reusing scheme, green and blue infrastructure investment, and increased rainfed agriculture efficiency. It is time we change how we operate economically as the extraction industry is no longer viable.