Should We Give a Dam About Hydro Power?

The International Commission for Large Dams held its 78th annual meeting recently in Ha Noi, attracting 800 delegates from 90 countries. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai made a speech emphasizing dams and hydro-electricity as a way of dealing with water deterioration and climate change. As Indian Council of Power Utilities President C.V.J Varma pointed out, global water consumption is doubling every 20 years and that 1.8 billion people are expected to live in regions of absolute water scarcity, especially in North Africa and the Middle East by 2025. Dams and hydroelectric power, while less of a focus in the United States, are shaping up to be a large issue in Asia and Africa.

Photo Credit: flookoff Vietnam views hydro-electric dams as viable clean energy and as good for water management.
Vietnam views hydro-electric dams as viable clean energy and as good for water management.

“Hydropower is the most important and widely-used renewable resources of energy and the construction of dams to provide hydropower and irrigation water and to regulate river flow to prevent floods and droughts is essential.” — C.V.J Varma

For countries dealing with rivers that cross international borders, like Vietnam, where 60% of the yearly average surface water is generated outside of the country, dams and the accompanying reservoirs and irrigation options can go a long way in determining water security. In addition, creating reliable dam systems is critical for dealing with the uncertain water future in the face of climate change and resulting sea level rise.

“Assessments show that in a 1 m sea-level rise, Viet Nam would lose 5 per cent of its land and 11 per cent of the country’s population would be affected.” — Nguyen Thai Lai, Viet Nam Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister

Mis-managed water can be a huge cost- groundwater depletion took 2.1% off Jordan’s GDP; water pollution and scarcity robbed 2.3% off China’s, and Kenya lost 11% to flooding in 1997-98.

Ethiopia is another example of a country where large-scale hydro plans could make a big difference. The Ethiopian GDP fluctuates with their level of rainfall, and more robust water management could make their crop yields (especially during drought times) and their power generation significantly more stable.

Additionally, they currently store 30 cubic metres of water per person; the United States stores 6,000. Their electricity consumption per capita is one of the lowest in the world, while their potential for hydro-electricity is one of the highest.

As Africa holds 35 of the 45 most “water-stressed” countries in the world and stands to be hit disproportionately by the effects of climate change, dam projects will make their way further and further into the future energy and management discussions.

Written by Scott James

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