By David Hulme and Barnaby Dye, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

Today we live in a lockdown world as the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across countries and continents: air travel has virtually ceased; billions of people have been told to stay at home; economic life has stalled; people in developing countries working in the informal sector can’t work; and, friends talk to each other from several metres away. This poses a question for the FutureDAMS Research Programme: what does the arrival of this ‘unexpected’ pandemic mean for the operation and future role of dams and mega-water infrastructure projects? In terms of the proximate crisis the immediate answer might appear to be ‘very little’. Dams are not directly involved in national health systems, care services or welfare programmes. But, if one digs deeper then Covid-19 may have significant implications for ‘what’ dams do and how dams will fit into future development strategies.

The Proximate Implications of Covid-19 for Dams

At times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the priority roles of dams are to contribute to water supplies, energy needs and perhaps food availability. Contributing to these creates two particular benefits. First, they provide direct benefits in terms of providing piped water, ensuring sanitation systems work, generating electricity and supporting existing irrigation for food production. And second, these services can help to reduce the likelihood of public panic and fear leading to dysfunctional social behaviours (such as hoarding, rioting, blocking roads, spreading rumours etc).

Ensuring the security of these services might require changes to the operation of dams. Typically, many dam projects are operated and designed to produce maximum levels of electricity generation or water storage. However, with the present crisis, operational manuals may have to prioritise the long-term security of contributions to water supply, electricity generation and irrigation to reduce the possibility of water not being available at any time. In effect, this might mean a relatively conservative water-use plan would be to ensure that domestic water supply and electricity supply during the crisis period could always be met.

Many large dams are multi-purpose and combine hydropower electricity production and irrigation. Agriculture often makes heavy demands on water supply so the share of water going to irrigation and agricultural production versus hydropower would need very careful planning. In countries where dam irrigation schemes are used for cash crops production, often for export, operators might consider prioritising hydropower to ensure stability of the national power grid. Alternatively, some governments (like land-scarce Singapore) want to enhance national food supply production, given the possibility of a breakdown of international markets. This would mean greater prioritisation for irrigation and the retention of dam water levels to ensure the availability of irrigation waters would be needed.

However, it is just as likely that governments may want dams to continue supporting water supplies, agriculture and electricity exactly as they did pre-crisis. Therefore, we think that many dams will continue operation as normal but, please do contact us if you know of any specific re-operationalisations that have occurred because of Covid-19.

The Long-term Implications of Covid-19 for Dams

Examining the possible long-term implications of Covid-19 on anything is complicated by the fact that Covid-19 in itself has shown how uncertain any predictions about future scenarios are. But, three particular points might be highlighted.

The first relates to the availability of finance for future dams and major water management infrastructure. Covid-19 seems to have transformed the thinking behind public expenditure in many, perhaps most, countries. International development agencies and national governments that have preached the need for austerity since the 2008 global financial crisis have suddenly switched to Keynesian, perhaps hyper-Keynesian, frameworks. In particular, spending on public health, social care and welfare services (especially social protection) has been massively expanded in OECD and non-OECD countries. This has been lauded in terms of its reducing the negative impacts of Covid-19 on both lives and livelihoods and reducing the depth of the anticipated economic depression. But, it means that public debt levels in many developing countries are already beginning to rise steeply and that, in the future, taking on additional debt to build large dams will need to be scrutinised even more carefully than before. In the coming years the argument that ‘the country simply cannot take on the additional debt that building this dam would require’ is going to be even stronger than it was in 2019.

A second potential impact relates to the way Covid-19 might reverse global interconnectedness. A full-scale retreat from our present hyper-connected world is unlikely. But as nations struggle to obtain the necessary equipment to deal with the virus and protect citizens, the pandemic has exposed some of the weaknesses of full-scale reliance on the global trading system. This could have a number of ramifications for areas like people’s freedom of movement but also might generate interest in reducing dependence on imports. This could lead governments to prioritise the development of industrial capacity in key strategic areas. It could also galvanise a desire for greater food security. In some countries, dams could be part of schemes in both areas, providing the electricity to underpin expanded factory production or irrigation that might be needed for agriculture.

A third long-term factor, that might re-shape ‘dam futures’, is climate change. Many analysts believe that the collective action needed to reduce the health impacts of Covid-19 (stopping international travel and migration, developing and making available a vaccine, scientific collaboration, increased international finance for crisis management) is similar to the scale of collective action needed to tackle climate change. There is hope that the efforts taken to solve Covid-19 will galvanise a similar response to climate change, after all, one should “never waste a good crisis” (a quotation attributed to Winston Churchill; Saul Alinsky, the US social activist; and, several others). FutureDAMS colleagues at IIED have already been making the argument that the management of the problems of Covid-19 and climate change should be closely linked as both require concerted multilateral cooperation. If this does happen, and we hope it does, then dams contribution to reducing carbon emissions will require close analysis.  On the one hand, we know that most hydropower dams can play a role in balancing electricity supply alongside renewable power. However, dams have also destroyed large areas of natural carbon sinks around the world and dams’ reservoirs also emit carbon, potentially up to the level of a gas plant in the Amazon. Therefore each future project will need very careful analysis as to whether it is ‘sustainable’.

In Lieu of Conclusion – Help us Track Covid-19 Impacts on Dams

In this blog we have sketched out some of the potential impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on dams and major water management infrastructure. In the near term the pandemic might change dam operation, prioritising the security of water supply, electricity and food availability over maximum hydroelectricity generation and/or economic growth. In the long term, Covid-19 could lead to different pressures hampering (“with so much national debt we cannot afford a big dam”) or supporting dams’ construction (“we must build a dam to guarantee urban water supply at times of crisis”). But, better than our speculations would be documenting some of the immediate impacts of the arrival of Covid-19 on dam operations and future plans for dams. If you have any such information could you please share it with us by filling in a simple questionnaire so that we can create a publicly-accessible dataset on ‘what’ the observed/reported implications of the pandemic are for dams.

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