The Challenges of Climate Change

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Climate change may be the most urgent global environmental issue of our time, bringing with it a host of challenges for rivers and dams. Rivers are key to ensuring the overall function of the planet’s ecosystems and the life that depends on them. Put simply, dams change rivers when they are needed most. In the face of a new global dam boom, the other side of the coin is the risk to these investments from more extreme weather (droughts and floods), which could make large dams uneconomic and even dangerous.

What are the main challenges we face regarding rivers and dams, and what are some of opportunities? Over the years we’ve had a lot of in-depth coverage of the key issues surrounding climate change and dams in World Rivers Review, but here we look forward to what the core issues will be for International Rivers and the river movements we work with around the globe. We talked with International Rivers’ Peter Bosshard, Interim Executive Director, and Grace Mang, Co-Director of Programs.

On the question of hydropower and rivers

Peter: Almost everyone understands that we have to move out of fossil fuels. In response, dam proponents are arguing that hydropower is a clean source of energy. We need to remind people that dams particularly in the tropics produce methane, and are a significant source of greenhouse gases. We have to research and publicize and educate people about this. We also need to strengthen awareness that many freshwater ecosystems are already suffering under a changing climate – a big stress factor for any ecosystem – and are at the brink of collapse.

Grace: At the end of the day, I think most environmentalists would prefer a hydropower dam to a coal-fired power station, which has in part given the green light to the biggest dam building boom the planet has ever seen. Climate change may be the biggest challenge of our generation but it is also not the only challenge. The cost of unbridled hydropower development will be the extinction of healthy freshwater ecosystems, displacement of millions of people, and the re-engineering of the planet’s arteries. The social impacts of dam building in many places are as big and intractable as the environmental problems. In China, for example, dam building has brought about the biggest forced migration of ethnic minorities the country has ever seen. Whether we can afford to pay these debts to avoid a carbon emissions debt is a question that we must confront head-on, and thoughtfully. 

Climate change brings great risks to dams, including from extreme drought, as exemplified by the 2010 image of a dried-up stretch of the Amazon.
Climate change brings great risks to dams, including from extreme drought, as exemplified by the 2010 image of a dried-up stretch of the Amazon.
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Baleia/Greenpeace

Peter: I second that, Grace – and we need more information on the size and scope of this river-debt we are accruing. In future we really need to make sure whatever we do has a small footprint on the world’s rivers, because we can’t rebuild what they are creating for our benefit. We also need to point out the specific the safety risks and economic risks that climate change is creating for dams. Floods and droughts we thought might happen once every 100 years now seem to come every few years. As a consequence, dams have become less safe and less economic. By making the place and time of future rainfalls so unpredictable, climate change is pulling the rug from under the planning methods for dams. Fortunately, better solutions that are less vulnerable to climate change are available.

Grace: As Peter says, better solutions are available. Hydropower vs. lower carbon emissions is not a zero sum game. In China – where these issues are being resolved in real time – International Rivers has shown that the belief that hydropower is the only way to chart a low-carbon future for the world’s biggest economy is false. In 2014, we released a river conservation electricity development scenario that showed that China could stop building dams today and still have the resources in renewable energy technologies to make deep cuts to its carbon emissions. The problem was that when we showed our findings to leading climate groups in government and in civil society in China, they said thanks but they really only cared about a commitment to lower emissions, not how we got there. This abdication of responsibility for the planet’s rivers gives dam builders a free pass to brush questions of the viability of large dams in a changing climate under the carpet, and ignores the irreversible damage to freshwater ecosystems already pushed to the brink of extinction.

On changes International Rivers would like to see in the ways that dams are managed

Peter: Probably for every major infrastructure project, but for dams in particular, there needs to be a really thorough climate risk assessment – how will a changing climate affect a specific project over the next 40-50 years? We also need to understand how climate change in dammed basins will affect those basins’ ability to adapt to a changing climate. Climate science is very complex and we still face many open questions. But such assessments are necessary if we are to predict the long-term viability of projects and their impacts on rivers; we must insist that they be done. Given the need to reduce our footprint on freshwater ecosystems and the uncertainty about future risks and impacts, we need to prioritize projects that “first, do no harm.” Very often, these projects will not be dams.

Climate change also brings risks to dams through more unpredictable floods, such as the one that destroyed dams in India's Uttarakhand State in 2013.
Climate change also brings risks to dams through more unpredictable floods, such as the one that destroyed dams in India's Uttarakhand State in 2013.
Photo courtesy of Matu Jansangthan

Grace: Proponents of dams tell us large reservoirs need to be built to secure future water supplies, and claim that those same dams will secure energy for development. As Peter notes, trying to use large dams to both minimize floods and also store water for electricity generation is a recipe for disaster in a changing climate. In Australia, where I am from, mismanagement of dams during heavy rains has actually caused worse disaster for downstream towns and cities. In January 2014, the Upper Mekong (which has been heavily dammed in China) had flood surges never seen before, with water levels raising by as much as eight meters overnight. Fishing communities and agricultural lands were wiped out. Although formal explanations are still forthcoming, some experts suspect that emergency release of water from China’s upstream dams to avoid dam collapses cannot be ruled out as a cause of the flood surges, which were experienced as far downstream as Thailand.  

On areas where more research is needed

Peter: International Rivers has done quite a bit of work about the climate risks to dammed rivers – for example, with the Google Earth production, “Wrong Climate for Damming Rivers” – but I think we need to ramp up our understanding of the climate vulnerability of dams. We have to become more scientifically credible and for that we need some in-depth research on the impacts of climate change on specific basins and projects, such as what we did for the Zambezi Basin. We will also need to strengthen our work on better solutions for meeting energy needs, because currently there is still a risk that when we stop a dam the government may build fossil fuel power plants instead. That risk exists for example in Chile and in Vietnam, where we celebrated decisions to cancel numerous hydropower plants but coal-fired generation is now being ramped up instead. We in the river movement have to be thoughtful, honest and scrupulous about this. We need to ask the question, “Well, if we stop this dam project, will we add another coal power plant?” In response to this question, we have to strengthen our work to show that  alternatives to destructive hydropower other than coal exist. And of course they do; what is often lacking is the understanding and political will to address the obstacles that still prevent the best options from going forward.

Grace: I agree, Peter, as much as we are asking the climate community to work with us to find solutions to drive low carbon emissions beyond hydro dependent ones, organizations like International Rivers need to be mindful of the domino effects of defending rivers and rights in an era when our natural resources are scarce. We all need to be part of the solution to climate change.