Listen to DW’s radio show ‘Living Planet’ to hear FutureDAMS’ Barnaby Dye talk about the safety of dams, how we can improve the planning of integrated water-energy-food-environment systems using the FutureDAMS integrated assessment toolset and what a sustainable dam project might look like.

Click here listen to ‘What are the lessons learned from Brazil’s Brumadinho dam collapse?’ on DW’s website.

Alternatively, below is an edited transcript of the recording:

DW: More than 3700 large dams are currently planned or under construction worldwide. Just how safe are dams? I turned to Barnaby Dye who’s a Research Associate with the FutureDAMS project at the University of Manchester. I started by asking him how we can make them safer, what went wrong in Brazil and what were the lessons learned, particularly for developing countries in Africa and Asia.

BD: Well, I think it starts by very carefully assessing whether you need a damn, what is the developmental importance of it, and then thinking about the different technologies that could deliver that development. And if a dam is indeed one of those technologies, then really carefully thinking about how to construct it, how to mitigate the negative impacts and ensure that then once it is built that there is that monitoring and that you’re not just building the infrastructure and leaving it to decay over time. Like all infrastructure, whether roads, railways, they always require constant maintenance and attention.

DW: Do you know if Brazil’s damn collapse had any effect on other damn projects and other parts of the world?

BD: I haven’t seen a particular defined impact around the world, but I think it’s certainly highlighted the trade-offs that these dams have and because of that global attention, it has been another instance where dams have been shown to be controversial.

DW: Different types of dams fulfil different purposes; in the case of Burmadinho it was to store toxic waste, and other dams service hydropower plants so they can help generate power and contribute to renewable energy. However, building dams can also be detrimental to the environment, divert rivers and so on. Are dams a boon or bane for our environment?

BD: So the main reasons to build a dam are hydropower, irrigation or drinking water, or potentially this issue with storing toxic waste for mines – they’re important services that help deliver development to communities and improve those communities. But we’ve seen over the last 50 years that dams have some serious negative consequences and that’s both in terms of the impact they have when you build them and you create the reservoir behind them, and the displacement they cause and the destruction of the environment. We also see big consequences downstream because of the change to river sediments and the way in which you’re manipulating the hydrology of a river. So dams clearly involve this positive and negative trade-off and so I think every time you’re going about building them you have to consider the purpose of them, what is the developments that we need in this area and then will the dam be the technology to deliver that development and also assess the dam alongside other technological solutions.

DW: Over the years there have been a lot of controversial projects, for example the construction of a dam in Myanmar where an environmental assessment, commissioned by the government five years ago, advised against building the dam because it could alter the flow of the Irrawaddy River. You are part of the FutureDAMS project that looks into dam building in developing countries. What have you found so far, are these concerns taken into account?

BD: Well, I think that over time we have seen a growing awareness of some of those trade-offs and so things like environmental impact assessments have become much more mainstream. There was a particular event in 1998 to 2000 called the World Commission on Dams, which created a global standard and awareness around some of these issues and since that we’ve seen some changes in the way dams are being built. But I think there’s still a tendency to overlook a lot of those downstream impacts from dams. In the vast majority of projects that we’ve looked at and historically, you can see that downstream impacts are either underplayed or overlooked in the assessment of whether this damn should go ahead. One of the things that we’re working on as a consortium is to try and build this modelling tool which helps you do that sort of assessment.

DW: So your role in that is that you help with planning?

BD: As a consortium we’re involved in different countries around the world and we’re working with partners to build a tool which helps assess different dam infrastructures and other types of infrastructure in the water-food-energy-environment nexus. So you can think about this question of ‘what are the places’ development needs’ and ‘what are the different technologies that can meet those development needs’. Once you’ve established that, then you can compare the different infrastructure options: you can compare dams or solar projects, wind power, small irrigation, large irrigation and think, what is the best combination of these different infrastructures that will meet those development needs. It helps you do that trade-off between the positives and the negatives and we try and work out what the best combination is.

DW: Can you can you give an example of a recent collaboration?

BD: I think perhaps where we’re most advanced is in Ghana where we’re building, along with partners in that country, this assessment model. It’s still at an early stage so the model isn’t complete, but with those partners we will hopefully be able to think through the options that the country has and think through the different future infrastructures they could be building.

DW: I was quite surprised to learn that over 3700 large new dams are planned or are under construction. FutureDAMS says this new generation of dam schemes has the potential to make a significant contribution towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Change commitments. But maximising the benefits while minimising the negative social and environmental impacts remains a challenge. What would a sustainable dam project look like that’s not harmful to the environment?

BD: I think you’d have to start from a place where you think about the developmental needs of a place. If you think that a dam is important to meeting those development needs, then you have to go through processes of assessing impacts and really make an informed decision about ‘is building the dam worth the trade-offs with negative impacts?’. Development has a long history of having winners and losers, and so if you do think that a dam is worth building, then go through processes of mitigation. For example, one of the projects I’ve looked at, at the Rwanda-Tanzania border, is the Rusumo Falls project. There they went from having a large scheme, which was going to displace 20,000 households, to a smaller dam which produced only slightly less hydropower but displaced around 650 households. So that’s an example of how you might be able to go about mitigating some of the impacts of the dam. The last stage is to think about compensation and how can we, whether it’s for the environment or for people being displaced, how can we give them a good enough deal that they’re not going to be harmed by this project and may even benefit from the development.

DW: Or what can be done to maybe not divert rivers and to start ecosystems?

BD: There’s a number of different options here. One option is to have an offset scheme: so you say, if we’re going to build a project here, then we’ll protect this other area where we could build a project and make a national park and make sure that the we keep the environment there very good. Another way of trying to do mitigation is thinking about how you operate the dam: you could try and operate it so that the river is closer to mimicking what it was like before, so you might want to simulate an annual flood which could provide irrigation and free fertility from the sediments flowing downstream. And then there are various options like building fish ladders to try and help fish migration and other smaller technical solutions which try and overcome some of the challenges that we have for ecosystems.

DW: And in the case of Brazil where toxic waste is stored, basically the solution is build better dams?

BD: Yes, and monitor those that have been built very closely in order to try and avoid disasters like we’ve seen.


Image by D Thory from Pixabay

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