Arlington, VA (Vocus) June 9, 2010
Today, The Nature Conservancy and partners released a new report calling attention to the large number of river-dependent people that have been affected by dams around the globe. Published in a special issue of the Water Alternatives journal recognizing the 10th anniversary of the World Commission on Dams, the findings reveal that at least 472 million people have potentially experienced negative consequences to their incomes and livelihoods.
“There are many places where dams have undeniably provided economic benefits such as flood protection, irrigation, and hydropower, but as this report shows they have also caused serious consequences for some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Brian Richter, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Program Director and lead author of the report. “At a time when global dam-building is rampant, we need to be smarter about planning for and operating dams in ways that alleviate harmful human and ecological impacts.”
While previous studies have focused on the number of people displaced by dam building projects, this paper, “Lost in Development’s Shadow: The Downstream Human Consequences of Dams,” provides the first ever analysis of the populations located downstream of dams whose livelihoods have been adversely affected by dam-induced changes in river systems. These changes can include altering the natural patterns of water flow, blocking movement of fish trying to reach spawning and feeding areas, and damaging human livelihoods such as fisheries, flood–recession agriculture, or floodplain grazing. Alterations in a river’s natural rhythm can and frequently do cause lifecycles and natural processes to break down, hurting not just the environment and species but also human communities and economies.
To calculate the number of potentially affected people, the report’s authors created a database documenting dam effects on people living along more than 120 rivers in 70 countries, and used geospatial analysis and case-studies to examine the populations located downstream of the world’s 7,000 largest dams.
Findings from the database include:
While the economic benefits of riverine and floodplain fisheries can be difficult to calculate across impoverished, vast, and politically sensitive regions, the few studies that have been conducted suggest that the economic value of healthy, free-flowing river systems can be substantial and that their omission from dam planning can cause significant negative impacts to downstream communities. The paper’s authors point out that pragmatic, scientifically-sound and well-demonstrated approaches and solutions are already available and can be utilized today, not only at the dam planning phase but also retroactively, to adjust the operations of an existing dam.
"It is unacceptable that half a billion people have been essentially ignored," said Thayer Scudder, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, California Institute of Technology. "At least that many have seen their lives adversely affected by large dams that were planned and built without sufficient concern for those living downstream. If the full scope of potential economic and personal costs of proposed new dams were calculated, fewer would be built."
The authors point to the example of the Penobscot River in Maine as a successful model to be replicated on a widespread scale. In the case of the Penobscot, scientists and dam managers are implementing solutions that produce hydroelectricity and enhance local development without destroying fisheries or flood-dependent crops.
Among the solutions outlined in the paper:
Contributors to “Lost in Development’s Shadow: The Downstream Consequences of Dams” include The Nature Conservancy, the Global Water Policy Project, the California Institute of Technology, McGill University, and the University of Virginia’s Department of Landscape Architecture. The full report can be downloaded here: http://www.water-alternatives.org/