Can dams have a positive role in the future? Are we making progress towards environmental challenges? What action is needed to decarbonise the world?

Listen to the second of the FutureDAMS podcasts which features David Hulme (CEO of the FutureDAMS project) in conversation with Paul Ekins (Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources). They discuss the role of dams and their potential future use, including their part renewable energy, storing electricity and the politics of their development. Professor Ekins also talks about his latest work on GEO6 (UN Environment’s sixth Global Environment Outlook) and the fight against climate change.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking the play button below, or you can find it on Soundcloud (search Global Development Institute). Below you will also find an edited transcript of the recording.

In conversation: David Hulme & Paul Ekins

Why dams?

DH: Today we’re going to be looking at the future of dams and when we talk about the future of dams, we’re talking about building them, or re operationalizing them, or maybe knocking them down if that would be the best option that we have, and we’ll be particularly thinking about hydropower, but also about the other ways in which dams can provide services such as supplying urban areas with water for irrigation.
Paul, why are dams of interest to you?

PE: I think there are two reasons why they’re really important. The first is that they they’re still the major source of renewable electricity in the world; other sources are catching them up fast, but they have played a very important role in generating power. They’re carbon free in their operation at least, if they’re well designed and operated, and therefore, they potentially have a role in the response to climate change. The second reason for interest is that people have not always built dams responsibly in the past, they’ve had enormous environmental and social impact in their construction and very often they’ve been mega projects that were more suited to the egos of the people who were ruling the countries that was building them than to the electricity systems of those countries or to the needs of the people. I was particularly interested to see to what extent the FutureDAMS project was going to look forward to dams in the future and the positive role they can play and the extent to which it had learned the lessons of the past.

The future role of dams

DH: Whilst we can identify some dams that are certainly contributing significant benefits to their populations, the pressure for prestige and potentially white elephant dams in the world remains very strong because they do certainly appeal to leaders who want to make a big difference to their country. You do need to look at what they cost and also at what some of the social and environmental costs will be, which have been underestimated in the past. I wonder if I could ask you to talk about the present position of dams because there are many things that are changing, such as the fact we’re now worried about sustainability, such as the fact that we have alternative technologies becoming available for electricity generation – how is this affecting the way that dams will fit into our futures?

I think it’s really important to evaluate dams in the current context. We know that there are other renewable energy sources, particularly renewable electricity sources that can now play a big role in helping to decarbonize economies and helping countries develop in ways that don’t involve lots of carbon emissions. At the same time, dams have a particularly important storage role. In a country like the UK, dams have been used to effectively store electricity for a very long time and it may well be that the dams that are going to be projected in the future will have a multitude of roles, apart from just generating hydropower, but they may be able to make intermittent renewable sources of energy more stable and more secure. So there’s, there’s that role, and then of course, there are other non-electricity roles that you’ve already mentioned. It’s particularly important to look at the relationship between electricity and water. In this era of climate change, water is a fundamental resource that people need for many things – and generating electricity is one of them – but by no means the only one and dams may have all sorts of rationales beyond the generation of electricity.

PE: It may well be that the future for dams is rather smaller than it has been in the past. And by smaller, I don’t mean lesser, I mean, that could be more smaller dams rather than these mega dams and I think that those smaller dams are going to be much less problematic in all sorts of ways. They will displace fewer people, they’ll have a lesser impact on nature and we’re much more aware now of nature than we were. We’re aware that it’s not just the climate change issues that we’re going to have to watch out for, but also biodiversity. I think we were talking earlier about the dam in Ghana that you’re studying particularly closely – there are plans to reduce its height and that this may result in less flooding of sensitive natural areas… I think those sorts of decisions might be taken now whereas 20 or 30 years ago no one would have given them a second thought.

DH: Certainly we have been looking at Pwalugu and understand that that damn is likely to be five or 10 metres lower than was planned, which means it doesn’t flood one valley with is quite rare fauna and flora. It’s very hard to imagine 20 or 30 years ago that that degree of precision damming would have been considered, whereas nowadays, certainly with the capacity to model and project where water will flow to and where would be flooded, that becomes much more possible.

PE: One of the things in the project that I’ve been very interested to see how it’s been developing is the way in which it seems to be becoming possible to be much better able to model and project the interaction between water and electricity systems than was the case in the past.

PE: It seems that energy engineers in the past would not really have taken the water dimension into account at all, they would just assume that there’s a river and we can use it. Whereas now I think people are much more aware that water is a sensitive resource in its own right: that it’s likely to be under pressure in various ways in the future from climate change; that there’s a host of other uses for water for which it might be better suited; and I think having some kind of modelling tool that seeks to take all those different users and options into account could potentially be extremely useful.

Dams as batteries

DH: Certainly one of the things that we found interesting is the idea that if you’re thinking of dams and electricity, then the idea of storage rather than generation being a function is certainly interesting academics and analysts. But we’ve been surprised that when we work in Africa and Asia, there’s relatively limited knowledge of this possibility; whether people haven’t quite spotted how cheap solar power and cheaper wind power gives them the option to think of dams for energy storage purposes? Have you been able to think about what why this new position is not really diffusing yet?

PE: I think in in developed countries, we’re only really coming to terms with the high proportion of intermittent and renewable energy sources on the grid: what does that mean for the stability of the grid and for the other measures that you have to take in order to balance it, and in order to make sure that it’s secure and stable? So I’m not altogether surprised that those ideas are quite slow to percolate. I think that’s one of the great strengths of a research project like this, in the sense that academics are supposed to think forward and about the kinds of problems to which they’re looking for solutions. And I think, therefore, that the fact that FutureDAMS is working in three global South countries, very different countries with very different electricity systems, very different governance systems, and very different problems to which they’re looking for solutions… the fact that we’re able to inject those ideas into those contexts and have discussions with the people responsible is potentially a very important product of the project.

DH: We’ve been seeing this role of dams as a store of energy as potentially very useful as we move towards sustainability. But I suppose the great competitor, which may emerge would be that if batteries became very efficient and relatively cheap. Then the question would be, would we use a damn for storing the energy or could we use batteries because that would be cheaper and more efficient?

PE: That’s certainly a possibility. But dams would have all sorts of implications and potential advantages that batteries don’t have at the moment. Batteries require all sorts of relatively rare earth minerals in order to make them and looking at the uses that batteries are being forecast for, practically everything around the world from vehicles and everything else, it’s quite clear that there’s going to be some pressure on the resources that are used to make batteries. So it may well be that the relatively large stores of electricity that even a medium sized dam can provide is a useful adjunct, even if batteries become very cheap, especially when the dam already exists. And quite a lot of dams have been built so some of them could be refurbished to function in this way and it may well be a good role for them. So I think it’s much too early yet to say what the definitive store of electricity is going to be and I think it’s quite possible that stores of water will serve that function for quite a long time in the future.

DH: I think some of the FutureDAMS scientists see the potential limits on batteries as being their requirement for lithium and other rare metals and that actually, the price may be driven up of some of the key components, so that if one gets an initial breakthrough in batteries, that actually the demand for finite material resources to manufacture those batteries to scale, might mean the price begins to rise after a while. But I suppose these are the difficult potential futures that we have to try to assess when we’re taking decisions about whether to build dams or make a switch to storage or whether we might assume that batteries will be able to do the job in a few years.

The politics of decision-making

DH: It it is interesting to note, when I think of the OECD countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America that actually ministries and different specialist professions do tend to stay in their silos – so the Ministry of Energy and Electricity would like to build its dams without consulting too much with the Ministry of Water Resources. And if it is a more powerful ministry, that still has to be negotiated.

PE: I don’t think that’s unique to any kind of countries. I think all government departments tend to like to get on with it and not to have to consult too widely. I think one of the challenges of the FutureDAMS project is going to show decision makers in the countries in which you’re working, that although it may take more time to plan out and design a dam, if you consult properly and if you take stakeholder considerations into account and if you do the strategic environmental assessment properly, that time should actually be a good investment. In terms of finally ending up, firstly with a decision as to whether the dam should go ahead at all, and sometimes dams should not have gone ahead, but they have gone ahead and with rather negative results, or if it is going to go ahead, that should inform the design of it so that it really does generate benefits for people more widely and has as little environmental impact as possible, so that you really do end up with the right kind of dam in the right kind of place. And one understands that ministers of energy like to get on with things and to get boots on the ground and start pouring concrete but I think that the kind of work you’re doing will hopefully persuade at least a few of those people that it’s worth taking the time and the analysis and the interdisciplinary study, to really work out what the full social, environmental as well as economic implications are going to before going ahead with the project, as large as many of these dams are, and then change the design accordingly in order to make sure that the benefits are maximised.

I think that the kind of work you’re doing will hopefully persuade at least a few of those people that it’s worth taking the time and the analysis and the interdisciplinary study, to really work out what the full social, environmental as well as economic implications are going to before going ahead with the project.

DH: We’re certainly finding that people are managing to learn the lessons of the past and find that consulting the people who will be affected by dams will help to get them both data that may not be available, but also allow them to understand the preferences and how they might reduce the social costs, reduce the need for compensation to resettled communities and contribute to people’s lives rather than impact on them negatively. We think by discussing these things and managing to open doors that might not have been opened before, then we can introduce the ideas even if one is very uncertain as to whether the lessons of past experience and the sort of modelling techniques are actually utilised.

PE: I think no system of governance is completely monolithic. And within the countries you’re working, that perhaps are not as inclined to participatory stakeholder working as one might like, there will be people there who will be arguing more for that rather than less. And by producing studies of the kind that you’re producing, you should be strengthening their hand in those discussions that they will have internally, you’ll probably never know the impact that these people might have had, because you will not be partof the discussions that they’re having internally within their own governance structures, but the fact that this information is there that it’s being put across in an expert and professional way. If there are people who want to make that case internally, at least they have the ammunition with which to make it and I think that’s a very important function of this kind of work.

DH: We’re certainly focusing quite a lot on benefit sharing and thinking about that as something which certainly has been shown to work quite effectively around some recently built dams and rather than thinking about crude ideas about compensation and giving people plots of land the same size as the plots of land that they had, that one could think much more progressively in terms of ‘if one is building a dam which is going to produce hydropower, then should people who are resettled have a shareholding in that dam and be able to wait indefinitely to get dividends from it?’. So that you can see that some of the costs are actually going to turn into a permanent flow of benefits for the people who’ve been negatively impacted on.

PE: I think there are many possible solutions to these sorts of issues and problems. But the important thing, I think, is to work with the people who are going to be affected and to find out in what form they would actually like the compensation because there’s no point giving them some kind of financial instrument which is completely alien to them, and which they don’t really understand because the one thing you know is that they will surrender that financial instrument to the first person who comes up to them and offers them what seems to them to be a fair price, whether it’s a fair price or not. So I think that’s the importance of the participation and the actual detailed stakeholder work on the ground. So that one understands what it is these people want. If indeed the decision is going to be to go ahead with the damn and that means that they can know what no longer go on living where they were living?

The Global Environment Outlook

DH: Paul, you’ve been working on the Global Environmental Outlook. What did GEO come up with this time around? Are we finding that the global environment outlook has been improving?

PE: Well, I’m afraid not. The global environment outlook is the flagship publication of the United Nations Environment Programme – this version is GEO-6, so it is the sixth edition of GEO and UNEP has been producing them since the mid-1990s. And each one has said that there are environmental challenges, and unfortunately, each one has documented how the environmental challenges are getting worse rather than better. So that back in the 1990s, for example, climate change was an issue that we were looking at. Climate change in GEO-6 was portrayed very much as a driver of many other environmental changes. So it’s no longer a phenomenon that is occurring which needs to be managed, it is a phenomenon that is driving an enormous number of other environmental changes: ocean environmental changes, terrestrial environmental changes, obviously, polar and cryosphere environmental changes, glaciers retreating… So it’s a very long document. It’s a very, “scientific” document in the sense that there are lots of references and things and I wouldn’t pretend that it’s an easy read, but it is a document which if we fail to get these environmental issues under control over the course of the next few centuries, and human civilization takes a major turn for the worse, then if future archaeologists find a copy of this document, they will know that humans knew what they were doing to the natural systems that sustain them. They may then ask themselves why humans didn’t take the necessary remedial measures. And there’s plenty of recommendations in GEO-6 as to how we can address these environmental challenges which we now face. But at the moment, there’s very little sign that the world’s governments or indeed the world’s peoples, are prepared to do what’s necessary in order to turn the turn the environmental trends around.

If future archaeologists find a copy of this document, they will know that humans knew what they were doing to the natural systems that sustain them. They may then ask themselves why humans didn’t take the necessary remedial measures.

DH: And so in many ways the forms of enhanced international cooperation don’t look as though they’re emerging and the pressure from individual citizens has actually turned into a sufficiently powerful political force?

PE: No. One can see lots of green shoots everywhere if one is looking for them. But I think to be honest, that’s been true over the last 30 or 40 years. What we are not seeing is a concerted movement either in terms of citizens or in terms of policymakers who are addressing the root causes of the problem in ways that are likely to turn the juggernaut of the global economy around. And we’re aware we will need all kinds of policy measures from pricing policy measures carbon pricing, most importantly, perhaps, but all sorts of other economic instruments but also regulations, voluntary agreements, labelling information, all sorts of things. And of course, research and development and technological development. But we’re not doing any of those things, anything like the rate that we should be.

Business and the ‘green economy’

DH: One of the terms that people use is green economy. Is there any sign that the economy or that businesses are fundamentally thinking about changing?

PE: I think there’s lots of businesses thinking about changing. There’s lots of businesses that would like to change. But in a competitive capitalist system, if you change and that makes your business less competitive, or your products more expensive, at the moment, you will go bust. And I think what business and government need to do is work out ways in which they can work together, so that governments can ensure that progressive businesses that want to take these environmental impacts into account and give consumers products that are made more sustainably and that a more sustainable in use and that are easier to repurpose at the end of their lives, that these businesses are actually given the possibility of deriving a business model that will keep them in business if they do all these things. And at the moment, that’s not the case. As a derivative product of the Global Environment I’m co-chairing a process that is called ‘GEO for Business’. The examination question there is saying, well, the global environment report identified the problem and some of the policy making solutions, what should business be doing in order to address these issues? And we’re going to be getting eminent business people and people who’ve worked in business and write about business to contribute to this series of policy briefs… it’ll be very interesting to see what they come up with.

DH: Are there any chinks of light? Are there some businesses that one can see are really trying very seriously? Are there any world leaders in terms of trying to go green?

PE: Yes, absolutely. And businesses, like people everywhere else in the world, they’re as worried as any of us about some of the trends in the world and many of them would like their businesses to contribute to the solutions. And many of them are doing that within the limits of the competitive market in which they find themselves. But if we take steel, for example: we know how to produce zero carbon steel, but it happens to be 30% more expensive than high carbon steel, and anyone who produced it would find that they couldn’t sell it on the global market. So that is a problem the policymakers are going to have to resolve either by funding the research and innovation that will enable low carbon steel to be produced more cheaply, or by making the production of carbon intensive steel more expensive. But in a competitive market, those are more or less the only two solutions.

How do we make progress?

DH: So we need national/international systems of governance that are potentially prepared to regulate and political forces and citizens who are prepared to say “yes, we want these forms of regulation to come in because we would like to live on Earth”?

PE: Indeed, and I think that those of us looking at the global situation, recognise that we’re not going to get all governments behind this agenda immediately but the whole role of international trade and the way in which these issues are taken into account in international trade becomes increasingly important. Because if that were to be a major part of the world, be it Europe or be it China and other Asian countries, that wanted to produce these goods sustainably but wanted also for its own businesses not to go out of business, then it would need to make adjustments at the borders in order to ensure that people who were still producing environmentally irresponsibly, were not simply able to free ride and to conquer their markets with a lot of cheap goods that have caused a lot of environmental damage. And that debate is now well joined and I’m quite sure that we will see developments in that area before too long.

DH: So there could be a way forward and we have to look for some region of the world or a collaboration of regions to decide to take leadership?

PE: I think realistically it’s going to have to be at least two major regions in order to do that, that actually have between them a reasonable proportion of world trade and can start to move the whole system in the right direction. And I very much hope that’s going to happen over the next five years because we don’t have an indefinite amount of time actually to get a grip on these problems.

DH: We’ve we’ve looked at at future dams and discussed that but thanks also for bringing us up to speed on what’s been happening with GEO-6 and just how important it is to take action to decarbonize the world in which we live very quickly and accept that we do live on a blue dot, a blue speck of dust in the universe and we don’t seem to have any alternative than to make it work here…

PE: A speck of dust and in a universe that otherwise looks extremely inhospitable for humans and so we better look after the little speck of dust that we have.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.

Photo by spiros xanthos on Unsplash


%d bloggers like this: