Climatewire | Energy & Sustainability
World's Dams Unprepared for Climate Change Conditions
Dams have been designed for river flows that will soon no longer
apply, according to new research
By Julia Pyper and ClimateWire | September 16, 2011
DAM PROBLEM: The world's dams are being built for water flow
conditions that may no longer apply thanks to climate change,
according to new research.
Over the past four years, John Matthews has been traveling the world
to better understand freshwater and climate change issues. He found
that poor planning is creating one of the biggest water-related threats.
"We need to think about managing water in a much more flexible way,"
said Matthews, who is director of fresh water and adaptation at
Conservation International. "Let's not just design for a single
future; let's think about multiple possible futures."
In a paper published this month in the journal PLoS Biology, Matthews
and his co-authors argue that investment and management decisions risk
exacerbating climate-initiated changes, which could lead to economic
The conventional method of building dams is fundamentally flawed, said
Matthews. Looking at the available data, engineers decide on a flow
rate that they feel will optimize the infrastructure project. The
problem, says Matthews, is that historical data is not a very good
guide to the future of freshwater resources -- particularly now that
extreme water conditions have been exacerbated by a rapidly changing
According to the United Nations, humans will feel the effects of
climate change through the water supply. The hydrological cycle --
which includes surface and ground sources, glaciers, precipitation,
runoff and vaporization --- is very sensitive to small climatic
shifts. This is a concern not only because water is essential for
subsistence, but because it's also the key to economic development.
The way humans are managing water infrastructure and conservation, the
authors argue, is only intensifying these issues.
Old dams, new realities
"It's not that we need to give up designing; it's that we need a
better design and decisionmaking process," said Matthews. "We need to
think carefully about how conditions may be shifting, because there
are some things that we can say with high confidence are happening
because of climate change."
Over the past century, dams made in the West have become more
mismatched with their ambient climate. The Hoover Dam, for instance,
was designed based on a 30-year period that had markedly higher
precipitation levels than today. As a result of a decade of drought,
the dam is now operating at only 30 percent of its capacity, said
Matthews, and new mechanisms have been added to cope with the lower
When infrastructure plans are based on a set climate scenario, rather
than a flexible one, it can be very costly in both human and economic
terms, especially in the developing world, the paper argues.
Less-developed areas, particularly parts of East and South Asia, are
now entering a period of rapid hydro infrastructure development. Since
water managers are largely following the West's rigid planning model,
these countries are going to have difficulty adapting to changes in
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development, 40 percent of all development investments are at risk due
to climate change, write authors in the PLoS paper. If a hydropower
project fails to fulfill expectations due to the effects of climate
change, governments could struggle to pay back loans from development
New dams and power shortfalls
Masses of people could also face prolonged brownouts. Matthews saw
this take place in Nepal, where low water levels rendered a brand-new
dam project ineffective and cut off the water supply farther downstream.
"[Developing countries] are likely to make themselves poorer and make
species and ecosystems decline at the same time, and I think that's a
huge crisis," said Matthews.
The solution is to build new water infrastructure in stages, say the
authors of the PLoS paper. Using that approach, managers can adjust
their strategy as climate patterns become clearer. Another step is to
integrate ecosystems into infrastructure development -- by "building
with nature" rather than on top of it, using a system that will be
Finally, it's necessary to plan for multiple future climate scenarios
by coordinating engineers, economists and conservationists. A
collective approach will result in a more robust long-term strategy.
If water management practices stay the same and do not account for
future risks, then "we're building things based on a hydrological
lie," said Matthews.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy
Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500
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