FutureDAMS: Addressing the water-energy-food-environment challenge

Aerial view of a damAs the world pivots towards a net zero future, the importance of sustainable power generation technologies, such as hydro-power, is increasingly discussed. However, climate change, increasing competition for water, rising populations and energy demands, and dam reservoir emissions ensure a highly complex policymaking context.

Dams and mega-water infrastructure interventions can create significant negative impacts on people, and lead to political instability and environmental degradation. Moreover, past experiences across the world show that too many projects have been poorly selected, designed and operated.

Nevertheless, they also have the potential to contribute to economic changes that could help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Over five years, the FutureDAMS (Future Design and Assessment of Mega-Systems) project sought to better understand water-energy-food-environment systems (WEFE) and work collaboratively with partners in countries around the world to create academic and policy-relevant outputs.

This is their story…

The challenges

By 2030, over 75% of new hydro-power capacity is expected to come in the form of large-scale projects across Asia and Africa. If these projects continue to be designed and built as individual assets, rather than taking a ‘whole-systems’ approach, there is a high probability that many projects will repeat the mistakes of the past, fail to understand negative impacts and may miss opportunities to achieve multiple SDGs (electricity, climate change, growth and jobs, poverty). Careful assessment of dams carbon emissions and climate change impact is necessary, with the jury split on whether hydro-power generation and storage is genuinely part of a carbon neutral future.

Large-scale water-resource management projects have often been designed and implemented as solo endeavours. Usually hydro-power developers only analyse and take account of the multiple water users within a river system. Now, they also need to take account of the precise needs of the electricity system and distribution grid. Any adjustments to dam design or operations have increasingly far-felt impacts on both systems.

Another level of complexity occurs with international river basins, where the impacts of dams and water management spread over national boundaries; what happens in any one country will impact on the availability of resources in other countries.

The FutureDAMS approach

FutureDAMS took a ‘whole-systems’ approach to understanding complex WEFE systems. By increasing understanding of water system, electricity grids and infrastructure projects and their politics and socio-environmental impacts, the project hoped to contribute to better designed, managed and operated interventions.

FutureDAMS was a five-year project launched in 2018. The interdisciplinary programme was funded by UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund. It consisted of a consortium of over 30 researchers led by The University of Manchester and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The project conducted research in five case studies across Asia and Africa:

  • Ghana (the Volta river basin)
  • Ethiopia (the Nile basin)
  • Middle East (Tigris-Euphrates)
  • India
  • Myanmar (Irrawaddy & Salween)

Initial progress was also made in Myanmar (Irrawaddy & Salween) but activities were dramatically reduced following a military coup in 2021.

The project itself was about much more than just dams. It involved research and policy recommendations on the nexus connecting water, food, energy and the environment, with a particular focus on modelling the selection and management of infrastructure in that nexus. Additionally, through high quality research, the project targeted greater engagement with debates on climate change and achieving the SDGs.


Multi-disciplinary engagement

FutureDAMS consisted of a multi-disciplinary team. Engineers modelled the decisions that one could take when designing large-scale projects such as dams; economists looked at ways to evaluate the economic costs and benefits; and political and social scientists looked at the social impact of these projects as well as the political processes that shape decision-making.

While natural scientists and engineers tended to focus on technical solutions, and social scientists generated insights into the politics of policymaking, bringing them together provided a systemic overview of potential interventions and their various effects.

This approach was designed to allow all stakeholders affected by a potential intervention to take more informed decisions about the range of choices available and the risks and opportunities involved.

Throughout the project, over 200 stakeholder organisations were engaged, including international agencies such as the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), as well as key stakeholders in case study countries, such as government ministries, the Volta River Authority (VRA) in Ghana and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and East Africa Power Pool (EAPP) in the Nile Basin.

Major outputs

Open access technical modelling software

To achieve a major advancement in the understanding of the nexus, and to build technical and institutional capabilities in partner countries, FutureDAMS engineers developed pioneering software.

The project developed technical modelling and simulation tools allowing cross-sectoral implications and choices available to be analysed for the first time. The result was two fully functional, free-to-use online tools, available at www.waterstrategy.org and www.nexus-strategy.org.

WATERSTRATEGY.ORG is on an online platform for collaborative water management and planning, across multi-sector systems, which allows you to build river basin models. By river basin models, the FutureDAMS team refer to a system which includes the water system, the food production system and the environmental and ecological systems. The sister site, NEXUS-STRATEGY.ORG, is similar but also includes the power system.

Note: The results shown below were generated for demonstration purpose only.

Eastern Nile Water Model

Tigris-Euphrates Water Model

By simulating complex WEFE systems, models can be linked to multi-objective artificial intelligence (AI) design algorithms, which can help identify the synergies and trade-offs between different objectives. For example, increased water availability for irrigated agriculture in one place can lead to lower electricity generation in another. This process helps identify which portfolios of interventions perform best across all sectors.

The resulting multi-criteria trade-off analysis can assist stakeholders in managing river systems, infrastructure and energy services. These methods can also explore strategies under multiple future scenarios to identify robust solutions that work acceptably over a range of possible futures.

Performance metrics within the model quantify the benefits generated by the built and natural infrastructure which can support strategic planning studies. Metrics could include:

  • capital costs
  • operating costs
  • load curtailment and C02 emissions from the whole electricity grid
  • eco-hydrological modifications
  • the size of irrigation areas

Stakeholders and partners were heavily engaged with the development of the model, with all case study areas contributing technical expertise and feedback.

In the Nile Basin, FutureDAMS enabled the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI-Entro) and East African Power Pool (EAPP) to work together with a customised model. This identified water management strategies that more effectively achieved multiple objectives – for example, providing water for settlements and irrigation, generating electricity and reducing flood risk.

Research conducted as part of the modelling process added significantly to the evidence base, demonstrating that international co-operation can support win-win scenarios. A paper, published in Nature Communications, demonstrated co-operative water management could have benefits across a region, in terms of electricity generation, flood prevention and long-term security of water flows.

In Ghana, participants from all relevant energy and water planning agencies attended software demonstrations. They then gave feedback on its goals and methods, which led directly to a on national-scale water-energy planning in Ghana.

The success of the modelling software also led to requests for demonstrations from a range of stakeholders. Notable instances included events such as World Water Week at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), a workshop in Jordan hosted by the Chairman of the Higher Council for Science and Technology, His Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan bin Talal and, finally, in Uzebkistan at an international event for high-level energy and water planners from across Central Asia, in collaboration from IWMI.

Stakeholder engagement guide

FutureDAMS created a stakeholder engagement guide, which provides comprehensive guidelines for how to go about infrastructure planning and WEFE modelling processes. We believe the guide’s five-step process has the potential to create the most rigorous assessment of WEFE infrastructure, produce recommendations which have the widest societal support and identify how to maximise benefits whilst minimising negative impacts.

A short animated video was also produced to highlight the key messages to consider when planning successful stakeholder engagement.

The guide lends itself to country customisation, ensuring that it can be adapted to support initiatives irrespective of location. For example, the guide is being successfully customised for a Ghanaian audience, with specific reference to examples from the Ghanaian context and including references to laws and institutions applicable in Ghana. This could be easily replicated elsewhere.

Other successes

Resettlement and compensation planning for the Pwalugu Dam, Ghana

FutureDAMS’ interdisciplinary approach allowed it to contribute to one of Ghana’s major infrastructure projects: the multipurpose dam that involves a hydro-power-solar-panel electricity generation component and water irrigation scheme.

FutureDAMS’ work occurred at a crucial stage. With political backing for the dam secure and construction having started in 2019, the process of compensation and livelihood restoration began in 2020. However, Volta River Authority (VRA), responsible for the dam, had not extensively engaged with Ghanaian or international expertise.

Our major contribution was to convene two forums for learning from Ghanaian experiences of dam building with an aim to mitigate and compensate for negative impacts. Ghanaian voices from across government agencies and academia were at the forefront of these discussions, placing lessons in the Ghanaian context. Specifically, ideas about multi-generational benefit sharing were introduced. The sessions built a network of learning, particularly ensuring stronger contact between VRA and the Bui Dam team, which manages ongoing livelihood restoration schemes.

As well as convening the forum, the FutureDAMS team was able to feed into planning documents around impact and environmental assessments and compensation measures from multiple disciplinary perspectives and also feed back key messages to the VRA team during their ongoing work.

The FutureDAMS project also researched the impact of Pwalugu and Bui Dams and transferable lessons between these projects. Findings were fed back to VRA and other stakeholders directly at three workshop events, highlighting current gaps in the VRA planning, and the mistakes and lessons learned from the Bui hydro-power project.

Major international events

University of Manchester hosting a delegation during a week long workshop in March 2022.

In addition to the case studies, the FutureDAMS project disseminated their findings and tools via several notable events.

In March 2022, The University of Manchester hosted a five-day hybrid workshop on the methods and tools developed by the project for colleagues around the world. This project directly led to the development of two river basin models of future interest to IWMI, namely the Incomati in southern Africa and the Amu Darya in Central Asia.

The modelling of the Amu Darya was further demonstrated at a water-security event in Uzbekistan, organised by IWMI’s Central Asian office.

Conference attendees in Jordan

Additionally, the open-access tools were demonstrated in Jordan, at an event hosted by the Chairman of the Higher Council for Science and Technology, His Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan bin Talal.

FutureDAMS’ Research Director Julien Harou was also interviewed by the national news in Uzbekistan.

Legacy website and knowledge base

The FutureDAMS website has been an equally essential repository and outreach tool. In May 2022 at the close of the project, the website had been accessed by visitors in 176 countries. All project publications, including journal articles, working papers and recordings of webinars with key partners, are available via this site, and provide in-depth analysis of the key findings and lessons learned. By the end of the project in May 2022, research outputs had been downloaded over 4,000 times and FutureDAMS’ work had also been cited in major policy documents, such as The United Nations World Water Development Report 2021, and publications from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Environment Agency and the FAO.

What next for WEFE nexus programmes?

Despite notable successes of the project in advancing the ‘whole-systems’ agenda, many challenges remain to ensure nexus thinking is incorporated more widely into future WEFE projects.

The tools developed by FutureDAMS represented a step change from what has been previously available in the public domain. The methods developed in FutureDAMS’ multi-sector assessment, linked to strategic (optimised) design and trade-off analysis, allows hydro-power planners and investors, river basin agencies and country ministries to get more benefits out of interlinked river basin-energy systems and reduce conflicts between water users and with the environment. The use of new online collaborative tools and interactive web-based graphics can facilitate effective and efficient engagement with interested stakeholders.

However, tools alone cannot change how human-natural systems evolve. Much work remains to be done on how to integrate such approaches into planning and governance processes and embed them within institutions. Sectoral-silo approaches to decision-making remain entrenched within the public sector.

Because the incentives are high, and the challenges (climate change, increasing access to electricity, achieving net zero) severe, there is considerable reason to expand the use of the strategic design approach developed by FutureDAMS. This can only be achieved through industry, policymakers and planners working collaboratively to maximise the opportunities presented by interconnected energy and river basin systems.