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Hundreds of dams are planned within global protected areas, a prospect that threatens people, plants and animals that rely on the lifegiving waters of free-flowing rivers.

According to a first-of-its-kind global analysis published in the journal Conservation Letters, 509 dams, or 14% of the total currently under construction or planned for the next two decades, are set to be built in protected areas.

“The sheer number of dams that are planned within protected areas is alarming,” said Michele Thieme, lead author of the study and lead freshwater scientist at WWF. “Rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems. Any policy that aims to conserve nature must prioritize the free flow of rivers.”

The researchers overlaid data on planned dams from the Global Dam Watch database onto maps from the World Database on Protected Areas to arrive at the number. The team also identified 1,249 large dams already in place within existing protected areas using the Global Reservoir and Dam Database (GRanD).

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dams protected areas
Locations of existing and planned dams within protected areas. Map courtesy of WWF. 

Worldwide, rivers aren’t what they used to be. A 2019 study revealed that two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers are no longer free-flowing. These long rivers (more than 1,000 kilometers or 621 miles long) are blocked by dams and infrastructure. This fragmentation blocks the flow of water and nutrient-carrying sediments to downstream habitats, altering ecosystems and impeding the migration and reproduction of fish and other freshwater species.

Freshwater mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations have declined by 83% between 1970 and 2014. Migratory freshwater fish have declined by 76%. Dams and infrastructure are among the major causes of this decline.

The construction of dams can have dire consequences for local communities, and the true socio-environmental costs of dams are rarely evaluated beforehand. According to the World Commission on Dams, large dams have forced some 40-80 million people from their lands in the past sixty years.

The Belo Monte dam complex in the Brazilian Amazon displaced roughly 20,000 people, according to estimates by International Rivers. After the installation of the Tucuruí dam, also in Brazil, fish catch declined by 60%, while 100,000 downstream residents were impacted due to lost fisheries, flooded agricultural lands, or the loss of other resources. On the Lower Omo River in Ethiopia, the construction of a dam led to the displacement and loss of livelihoods for Indigenous groups. And the list continues.

The controversial Kaliwa dam project in the Philippines is one of the projects identified as “under construction” by the study. The construction threatens the ancestral domains of Indigenous groups as well as a designated natural wildlife park sanctuary and game refuge. And it may contaminate drinking water, endanger endemic species, and pose flooding risks to agriculture and fishing communities.

In Croatia and Slovenia, several planned dams along the Mura and Drava rivers trespass into protected areas. The dams are intended to provide electricity and flood protection to the region, but would also bring with them a suite of problems, including habitat loss for fish, erosion of the riverbed, changes to the river flow, and impacts to local fishing and recreation, according to WWF.

“The study’s findings are alarming but also ring true with our experience, where we have seen a dramatic increase in dams being built in extremely sensitive areas,” Josh Klemm, policy director of International Rivers, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email.

“For example, the China Ex-Im Bank is expected to finance the Koukoutamba Dam in Guinea, which would result in the deaths of up to 1,500 critically endangered western chimpanzees. The dam would be built in the middle of a national park that was just created in 2017 specifically to protect the chimpanzees.”

To avoid such catastrophes, the authors strongly encourage governments to avoid constructing dams in or near protected areas or where they disrupt free-flowing rivers. Thieme points to planned dams in the Balkans Adria region and across the arc of the Eastern Himalayas in Southeast Asia (orange dots on the WWF map above) that overlap with areas that still have relatively high river connectivity.

Where dams already exist and provide valuable services, the authors recommend that dams be mitigated to include fish passages and to restore environmental flow regimes.

“We’re not an anti-dam organization,” Thieme said, “But we very much advocate for early upstream planning in ways that can minimize impacts and harm.”

Governments should first look for other forms of alternative energy like solar and wind power, which are becoming more cost-effective. But if a dam must be built, informed site selection is the most important and effective step towards building low-impact dams that, some say, can be done.

The authors also advocate for dam removal to reconnect pathways for species and to restore sediment flow. The creation of protected areas that include protections for free-flowing rivers in high-biodiversity areas is also a high priority. Few of the world’s protected sites include protections for an entire free-flowing watershed.

“The existence of protected areas has been insufficient to prevent the construction of destructive dams,” Klemm said. “That is a key reason that we and our partners advocate for and are actively seeking permanent legal protection of rivers enshrined in national legislation.”

The designation of “protected area” is not iron-clad against dams. The study identified 40 cases in which protections for protected areas were rolled back to make way for existing dams. The easing of restrictions, shrinking of protected areas, or complete elimination of protections for protected areas are known as PADDD events and most, according to a 2019 study, are related to infrastructure.

The creation of the Hetch Hetchy dam inside the hallowed Yosemite National Park was the result of regulation rollbacks by the US government and is the earliest PADDD event noted in the study.

Most of the PADDD events identified in the study occurred in Brazil. In 2010, for instance, 10 protected areas were dissolved and four were downgraded to make way for the Jirau hydroelectric plant. The plant dammed the Madeira River, one of the Amazon’s largest tributaries, altering river flow, displacing Indigenous groups and impacting the health of important fisheries.

The prospect of building more dams raises alarms about the management of these protected areas. The researchers express concerns about ongoing rollbacks of protections, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s too early to tell overall if rollbacks have increased during the pandemic,” Rachel Golden Kroner, a co-author of the study and social scientist at the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science, told Mongabay in an email. “However, we do know that these decisions are moving forward at a time when the public is understandably distracted, and cannot adequately participate in decision-making processes.”

On the other hand, the pandemic creates opportunities for increased regulations and protections. Governments should use economic recovery plans to support conservation, protect land, and invest in programs such as payments for ecosystem services, Golden Kroner says.

“The pandemic has halted construction at dam sites around the world, and many disrupted projects are unlikely to ever get built,” Klemm said.

“The hydropower sector is already on the ropes after years of decline because of ballooning costs and cheaper alternatives, and the post-COVID recovery represents a real opportunity to make a clean break from the past.”

Featured image by: International Rivers

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.


Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are unable to resolve a dispute over water rights amid the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Addis Ababa on the Blue Nile river. Seasonal rains are starting to fill the dam, which is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and two-thirds of the dam has already been built, prompting researchers to urge the countries to move faster to resolve the conflict. 

What is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam able to hold approximately 4 billion cubic meters of water, which constitutes more volume of water than the entire Blue Nile. 

Benefits of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Half a century in the making, the US$4.8 billion project is a source of national pride as it will be able to generate 6 000 megawatts of electricity to tens of millions of Ethiopians. The infrastructure, which was paid for through taxes, promises reliable electric power, a boost for industry and new jobs, components which are critical to nearly half of the country’s population who lack access to electricity. 

Problems of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

For Egypt, however, the dam is raising concerns over how it will affect the Nile River. Over 90% of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people live along or around the Nile, which supplies most of the country’s water. Egypt fears the dam will disrupt the Nile’s flow of water, particularly during times of drought, affecting the lives of many who depend on it. Currently, only Egypt and neighbour Sudan have any rights to its water, further complicating efforts at diplomacy. However, this control depends on what comes downstream, over which it has no control. 

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are currently unable to reach an agreement on how to share the water among the three countries, the measures that should be enforced to protect the Nile’s flow of water, and what will happen in the event of a drought. 

The nations have resolved some key issues, however, including the volume of water and time needed to complete the fill. However, there is still disagreement as to what would happen in the event of a drought, as well as some other technical and legal issues. 

In the case of a drought year, the filling period would extend to seven years, but they have yet to agree on what to do in this case. The countries have agreed that when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35 to 40 billion cubic meters per year, that would constitute a drought. In such an event, Egypt and Sudan want Ethiopia to release some of the water in the dam’s reservoir. Representatives of both countries say that this would still allow Ethiopia to continue generating electricity, but Ethiopia wants the flexibility to decide how much water to release during drought conditions because more water equates to more power per unit of water. 

On July 15, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water and irrigation, is reported to have said on state television that “the filling of the dam doesn’t need to wait until the completion of the dam,” leading many to believe that Ethiopia has begun filling the dam. However, the government clarified that the flow of water into the reservoir was because of heavy rainfall and runoff.

Egypt has previously said that if Ethiopia needs electric power, then it should involve a third party, such as the World Bank, in financing Ethiopian power stations. Alternatively, Egypt could potentially share electricity with Ethiopia, similar to its arrangements with Sudan. Egypt says, “One nation’s need for electricity is pinned to another nation’s need for water.” 

An Attempt at Diplomacy 

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been engaged in years of negotiations and talks which have failed to produce a deal that satisfies the three nations.

On June 26, following another round of negotiations, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan pledged to reach a deal within two weeks- in which Ethiopia agreed to withhold from filling the dam during the period. As July and August are regarded as the summer’s ‘rainy season’, Ethiopia is eager to start filling the reservoir in order to maximise utilisation of the forthcoming rain. From the perspective of the Ethiopian government, if it misses the summer’s rainy season, the country would have to wait another year to start filling and operating the dam. 

Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, stated his country was ready to “mobilise millions” in order to defend the dam, while Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, stressed Egypt would do anything to protect the rights of the Nile river. In the past, Egypt has said that any attempt by upstream nations to take what it regarded as Egyptian water would result in war. 

An official water-sharing agreement does not exist between Ethiopia and Egypt. Under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt extracts 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile annually, and Sudan 18.5 billion. This agreement was established not long before Egypt began constructing the Aswan High Dam, the country’s own ‘mega dam’. Ethiopia, however, was excluded from the negotiations that constructed the agreement, and for that reason, does not recognise it. 

Egypt Threatens Ethiopia?

The tension between the countries has been described as toxic- Egypt has accused Ethiopia of stealing their water supply with the intention of drying up their country, and Ethiopia has portrayed Egypt as a neo colonial power treading on national sovereignty

Egypt wants to establish a thorough deal to mediate the filling and operation of the dam that would include agreed upon drought mitigation measures. 

In February, Ethiopia dismissed an agreement produced by the US and the World Bank, following talks in Washington, on the premise that the deal was biased towards Egypt.   

Ethiopia has previously stated that it will ‘cause no significant harm’ however dismissed the notion of being bound by agreements that could govern how it operates the dam. William Davison, Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, “Ethiopia feels no compulsion to sign anything that could potentially disadvantage it in the future” and that “Egypt and Sudan on the other side want something that is as detailed and as binding and long-lasting as possible.”   

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UN Involvement in Pressing for a Deal

In May, Egypt sought help from the UN Security Council to press Ethiopia to produce a deal. Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, said in a speech to the Security Council, “the unilateral filling and operation of this dam, without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect downstream communities . . . would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region.”

Egypt wants the final deal to have the status of any other international treaty, and would prefer a third party, such as the Afircan Union (AU) or UN, to intervene should any disputes arise. Ethiopia, on the other hand, wants disagreements to be settled between the riparian states without the involvement of foreign parties.

Latest Update 

Talks resumed over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on August 3, but there are no updates as of yet. Follow Earth.Org for updates.

Featured image by: Hailefida

A study has found that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries in 2019 despite China experiencing higher-than-average water levels upstream. 

US-based research company, Eyes on Earth, conducted a ‘Wetness Index’ observational study, which looked at the wet season period from May to October and found that the severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet season of 2019 was largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the upper Mekong during that time.

China disputed the findings, saying that there was low rainfall during last year’s monsoon season on its portion of the 4 350km river.

However, satellite imagery of surface wetness in China’s Yunnan province, through which the Upper Mekong flows, suggest the region in 2019 actually had slightly above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season. 

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Mekong River, China: the Conflict

Last year’s drought, which saw the Lower Mekong at its lowest levels in more than 50 years, devastated farmers and fisherman and saw the river recede to expose sandbanks along some stretches, with some parts drying up entirely when fishing should have been plentiful. At one gauge in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, such low water levels had never been recorded before. 

Alan Basist, co-author of the report, and his colleague studied this gauge over a 28-year period and calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height. 

The river supports 60 million people as it flows past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and through Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing’s control of the upstream Mekong provides as much as 70% of the downstream water in the dry season. 

“If the Chinese are stating that they were not contributing to the drought, the data does not support that position,” stated Basist. “There was a huge volume of water that was being held back in China”, Basist added. 

Adding to the downstream woes were sudden releases of water from China, which often came unannounced and drowned crops that had been planted near the banks because of the drought. Local fisheries have complained that their catches have faced a very steep decline, while agriculture harvests are stagnant as a result of the persistent droughts and unpredictable floods.

Studies by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organisation that works with governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the river, further predicts that the decrease of local agricultural production will result in these countries being over-dependent on China for food imports, ‘making them even more vulnerable to Chinese influence’. 

In February, the Chinese foreign minister had asserted to regional foreign ministers that China was suffering from the drought as well. He added that even in the unprecedented times of the coronavirus outbreak, the government was being magnanimous in sending water downstream’. Basist, however, refutes this claim.

“You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “China can regulate this river flow through dams and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing”. 

He adds, “The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress. There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China.” 

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the southwest of the nation has 11 damns, which produce more power than the region needs. These water reserves in China are swelling, as dam reservoirs fill with the glacial melt that has fed into the River for thousands of years.

Basist says, “Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast. The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

Since China doesn’t have any formal water treaties with countries in the lower Mekong regions, cooperation between the countries is poor. The Mekong River Commission works with the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, but China is noticeably absent.

Two-thirds of Earth’s 242 longest rivers are no longer free-flowing due to human activities, a study mapping over 12 million kms of watercourses reveals. 

Why are free-flowing rivers important?

Besides dams and reservoirs, activities like water extraction and sediment trapping disrupt rivers’ natural flow. Free-flowing rivers feed hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediments crucial to agriculture and mitigate the impact of floods and droughts. River fragmentation and alteration threaten vital ecosystems for people and wildlife.

This groundbreaking study by hydrologists from McGill University, published in Nature, is the first comprehensive global assessment of the connectivity of Earth’s largest rivers. Scientific wisdom postulates that free-flowing rivers must remain connected across four dimensions: longitudinally, so that fish and other species can move upstream while water, nutrients, and sediments can move downstream; laterally, so the river can move out onto its floodplain, delivering important nutrients to fish in other habitats and bringing nutrients back into the river itself; vertically, so the river can flow into and interact with groundwater and aquifers; and seasonally, so that the important ecological functions rivers provide over time are not impaired — for example, the flood pulses that signal fish to spawn.

Using satellite imagery and hydrological modelling, researchers mapped over 12 million kilometers of watercourses worldwide.  The team identified indicators at the global scale that measured any of the four ways of river connectivity. Measurements showed how the presence of dams affects longitudinal, lateral, and seasonal components of connectivity. Roads and urban areas built in flood plains also disrupted lateral connectivity.

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Figure 1 River connectivity of global rivers threatened by the five dominant pressures: DOF (degree of regulation), SED (sediment trapping), USE (consumptive water use) and URB (urban areas) (Source: Grill et al. 2019)

Data analysis revealed that river fragmentation, flow regulation, sedimentation, water consumption, and urbanisation were the five dominant constraints rivers face worldwide. Only rivers in remote regions like the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest were found to have remained untouched and could flow unimpeded along its entire course. In densely populated areas only a few very long rivers remain free-flowing, such as the Irrawaddy in Myanmar and the Salween in China.

There are over 2.8 million large and small dams constructed around the world; these are the leading cause of river fragmentation. Dams, intentionally designed to impede river flow, not only alter terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity by preventing species migration, but also accelerate the shrinking of downstream river deltas and expose low-lying regions to increased flood risk by preventing the exchange of sediments.

This study adds to growing evidence highlighting how human activities are fundamentally changing the natural landscape and the water cycle. With more than 3,700 dams in the works and the pace of hydropower development accelerating around the world, the ecological consequences of dams should push us to develop an energy system that minimises negative impacts on our ecosystem. The results of this study, freely available in an interactive map portal, should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers, engineers, and planners and encourage them to redesign the infrastructure development projects.

Life in and around a river evolves and is conditioned by free-flowing water. A dam disrupts life.

The best way forward is to adopt nature-based solutions (NbS), which are defined as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’. Countries should embrace NbS like floodplain restoration, ecological engineering, and integrated water resources management to ensure river flow connectivity and protect the ecosystem.

Removing dams is another way to restore the rivers. A dam removal movement has already started in the US, where about 1,500 dams have been removed. Support for river restoration through dam demolition is also growing in Europe and Japan.  A project called Dam Removal Europe focuses on clearing rivers of the 30,000 old or obsolete dams that still exist across Europe. These projects should be embarked upon more widely to ensure the protection and longevity of Earth’s last free-flowing rivers.

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