7 REASONS WHY IS HYDROPOWER IS DIRTY
Hydropower is dirty. It’s a harmful form of energy production and there is science to prove it. What was once thought of as a green solution to the energy crisis is now destroying the last pockets of untouched wilderness and healthy, intact ecosystem of the world. Here is why hydropower sucks:
1. HYDRO POWER DESTROYS THE FLOW
Dams create reservoirs. They kill the flow, the essence of the river. Without movement, water temperature rises and oxygen levels drop. Sediment builds up behind a dam and stagnation degrades water quality, negatively affecting native flora and fauna. A UN report found that reservoirs worldwide evaporate more water than is used by humans.
There is more than just water flowing down a river. Sediment is an often-overlooked feature of a natural river ecosystem. Every river transports an astounding amount of sediment (silt, sand, gravel, rocks and boulders) from source to sea. This movement is an important process that brings minerals from mountains into lowland areas. A river the size of Rhine can move over 200 dump trucks of sediment a day over the German-Dutch border. When an accumulation of sediment builds up behind a large dam can, it cam often render the dam inefficient in just a few years. River sediment create sandy beaches that protect shores from storms and erosion. Without the constant replenishment of gravel and sediment from upstream, the river below a dam carves deeper into the earth affecting the groundwater table and limiting water access and water quality for humans, vegetation and industry.
Sediment transport provides habitat for aquatic and riparian species by creating gravel bars for fish spawning as well as moderating the capacity of stream channels and the rate of water flow. Learn more about sediment transport here.
2. DAMS STOP FISH MIGRATION
Ever hear that joke about the fish that swims into a wall and says “Dam.” It’s a funny joke but a sad truth. A concrete dam means fish can’t migrate up or downstream, both directions integral to their reproductive cycle. Many fish species migrate upstream to spawn and downstream to reach maturity, returning to the same river again to lay eggs. If their path is blocked, their species will cease to exist. The most iconic is the salmon.
In Northern Europe and North America salmon drive whole ecosystems. Hatching from eggs and leaving a small stream they weigh just few grams. When they return to the exact same stream years later to spawn, some are up 15 kilograms, rich with nutrients. After spawning salmon die they end up as food for bears, birds and scavengers. Bones and carcases carried further into the forest then fertilize the soil providing nitrogen, phosphorous etc. to areas otherwise lacking these elements. Now think about that cycle over thousands of years. It takes fish to feed a forest and this is an extremely important process that has been threatened by dams.
Check out this cool animated cartoon for a visual of how salmon feed trees.
Now, some will argue, “there are no salmon in the Balkans,” and this is true, but there were European eels (Anguilla anguilla) and other migratory fish like Twait shad (Alosa fallax), Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) and others species that migrate inland from sea to river, who provide a similar function on dam-free rivers. Some rivers in Europe still have Danube salmon (Hucho hucho) and some trout species migrating up them. Once abundant, these fish are now almost gone due to environmental pressure and the number of dams built. They solely depend on last free flowing rivers and there is a question of extinction if the building continues. More info here: http://www.worldfishmigrationfoundation.com/home
Fish ladders are a proposed solution but research is revealing that fish ladders are very ineffective. Evolution didn’t teach fish to travel up elaborate concrete mazes to sidestep a dam. There are many types of fish ladders and recently some appeared to be more efficient (and extremely expensive to build…think close to a million dollars), with some fish using them properly. But there is a fundamental problem; fish are migrating upstream to find fast moving, oxygen-saturated water to spawn in but what they get is either a slow moving muddy reservoir or a eager heron’s beak or fox’s tooth who figured out that fish ladders funnel prey to the same spot every day.
On top of all that, dams and reservoirs slow and broaden rivers, making them warmer, reducing water quality, and harbouring destructive non-native species that disperse throughout the watershed and prey on and compete with few native fish that somehow made it upstream. It is hard to be a fish in a dammed river, that’s for sure.
3. BIG DAMS FLOOD VALLEYS, SMALL DAMS DRY THEM OUT
Big dams flood entire valleys. This means that villages, farmland, football pitches, and historic sites are lost underwater, demolishing the traditional and low-impact way of life in these ancient villages. Locals are displaced without a choice. Evacuate or be inundated. Reservoirs also flood smaller tributaries, destroying rich microclimates and ecosystems there.
Small hydro is a different story. Attempting to extract maximum energy from a small river means using lots of pipes to divert the river, often blasting tunnels through hills, to find the shortest distance with the greatest chance in elevation. The water in pipes water then turns power turbines, often many km away from the dam.
The main problem with small hydro is the dried up and empty riverbed that lays between the dam and power station. As a result of climate change, the variation of climatic and local weather makes small hydropower plants (HPP) even less efficient. Rainfall is intermittent and unevenly distributed causing times of drought and flood. Smaller snow packs mean less snowmelt water flowing into rivers and streams. For these reasons, small HPP operators often disregard minimal biological flows determined by environmental impact assessments leaving rivers dry in the hottest summer months. If you are a fish, snail, algae, moss or an aquatic insect just an hour without being submerged by water is your end, let alone a whole week or month.
For these reasons, small hydro is a big problem. Many small dams are just as destructive as a large dam, and building multiple small HPP on tributaries is like cutting off the branches of a tree and expecting the trunk to live. As well, small HPP produce minimal input of electricity and are destroying the most pristine flows leaving behind painful and permanent scars. Small hydro is not green hydro.
Watch this cartoon on the many problems with small hydro: https://vimeo.com/18310747
4. DAMS CONTRIBUTE TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Hydropower is the only ‘renewable’ energy source sending species to extinction, displacing people globally, and contributing to climate change. The hydropower industry and decision makers present hydropower as a solution to climate change, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Science and research has proved that the greenhouse gas emissions from dam reservoirs is an active and significant contributor to climate change. The total global emissions of dams worldwide is comparable to the climatic impact of the aviation industry. Large dams contribute more methane to global warming than the entire country of Canada–tar sands and all!
Where do these greenhouse gases come from? When reservoirs cover organic matter like forests, fields and farmland they produce greenhouse gases–especially in warm climates. The process of decomposition that occurs in the lower, oxygen-absent, layers of water in a reservoir produce methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2), the two major greenhouse gasses associated with climate change. In addition, when a forest or grassland is cut down and/or flooded to make way for a dam reservoir, those plant communities are no longer available to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
More info and facts in video: The Wrong Climate for Damming Rivers
5. DAMS DESTROY OUR NATIONAL PARKS
One third of the dams and diversions between Slovenia and Albania are planned within sensitive protected areas including 118 in national parks. Foreign investment is well aware that this would not go through in their homeland and is gladly investing its funds in countries where this is still possible. If the fierce local opposition fails, communities will be displaced and the last undammed watersheds on the continent will be irreversibly damaged and destroyed.
This not about being against development or progress, this is about simply not destroying the last percentage of pristine nature left in Europe.
6. HYDROPOWER FUELS VIOLENCE, MONEY LAUNDERING + CORRUPTION
Most large-scale trends have double meanings. With this dam craze in the Balkans this hidden agenda is money laundering and big profit. Why else would you build a new dam in Albania, a country that is already 98% hydro-dependant, one of the sunniest countries in Europe and a climate that is getting less rainfall every year. Wouldn’t’ solar or wind power make more sense? Building a wind turbine or solar power plant is simple. There are set number of bolts, a pre determined amount of metal and a defined number of hours to put it all together. Building a dam on the other hand, uses an indefinite amount of concrete and an undermined number of access roads (made as needed). Projected costs for a dam are commonly double the first quote. All this makes one hell of a chance to make some money, eh?
There is a circle that makes this work; investors, banks, construction companies, local governments and municipalities. Lets dive in. The estimated value of loans provided by international banks for these 3.000 proposed dams and diversions is over €700 million. International banks are financing projects inside and outside protected areas. Violence accompanies many of these projects. An 2017 EU report (Identification of Water Related Conflicts Linked to Hydropower Projects in Albania) revealed that there were 34 arrests and 6 casualties directly tied to hydro development between 2012-2016. This includes one murder and one murder attempt. The study confirms that conflicts, corruption, lack of transparency and even murder are deeply connected with hydropower development in Albania.
The study reveals that small hydro projects are the most conflict-ridden projects, with small village communities the most vulnerable groups who are usually neither informed nor consulted when a project is approved. Lack of information sharing and public consultation is still an approach investors and governments capitalize on.
7. HYDRO POWER (IN THE BALKANS) IS UNNECESSARY
The painful fact is, most of the power these dams would create is not needed in the region. Most of it would be exported to EU countries that are trying to get their green renewables badge without ruining their own backyard. Actually, there isn’t much nature left to developed EU countries. The Balkans is a net electricity exporter so building all these new power plants is unnecessary destruction to fuel developed Europe’s energy needs. Rather than re-assessing energy consumption and energy waste, they are will to destroy the last pockets of pristine wilderness.
Imagine that you are a local from, lets say, Bosnia and Herzegovina. These important people roll in to your village in fancy cars and declare they will build a dam and destroy your valley, the same valley that provides the rare opportunity to earn a living from sustainable tourism. It hurts a bit less when they promise you jobs, constructing the dam and then running the power plant. Then they bring in their construction workers and build a HPP can be run from their smartphone back home. Your reality becomes dark. Dams in Balkans are a problem these people and wildlife simply don’t need.
So, dams are dirty. Let’s talk solutions and alternatives:
SOLUTIONS + ALTERNATIVES TO DAMMING FREE-FLOWING RIVERS:
1. Use less energy. Become conscious consumers
Feeling helpless as a global citizen that cares about the free-flowing rivers of the world. Feeling too small to help? It’s pretty simple; everything starts with small steps done by individuals. It’s when you multiply these small actions with millions that you get an effect that can change electricity policy, economies and politics. It will even chance your electricity bill!
Use less. Buy only things you really need and buy good quality or used when available. Opt for organic or local food. Don’t use unnecessary electrical appliances. Turn off your lights, don’t leave the TV on. It’s is ok if your room temperature is between 18-20C, wear socks. Don’t use fast electrical kettles to boil water. Research where your electricity comes from and switch to a provider that doesn’t use hydro if possible. Vote with your dollars and your choices.
2. Upgrade and retrofit existing dams to make them more efficient
Existing dams can be updated with better, more efficient turbines. Dam is a dam and its only purpose is to hold back a big mass of water and the technology about that hasn’t changed much in last decades. But the turbines that produce the energy and the technology and knowledge behind those improves every year. Use that cutting edge knowledge on dams that already exist. Check this for more info and numbers on that: https://www.hydroreform.org/abouthydro/modernizing-hydropower
3. Support alternative energy like solar, wind and tidal
Not a single way of harvesting energy from nature is completely clean or without negative effects. We should all be aware of that. Solar has its big problem with silicon that is obtained from open pit mines in pristine areas and are still very hard to recycle – but there is hope for upcycling. Wind turbines are loud and harm wildlife directly (birds, bats) and indirectly (big mammals) and affect the quality of life for close by living people. Location is key for turbines.
Harvesting tidal and wave energy is one of the least exploited energy production methods and holds immense potential but affects marine biodiversity greatly.
For solar, think about always-sunny Albania with Tirana ranked in the top 10 sunniest capitals of Europe (https://invest-in-albania.org/tirana-ranks-among-top10-sunniest-european-cities/). Why not start investing in solar there? With an electricity network almost entirely depends on hydro (https://www.hydropower.org/country-profiles/albania) they still want to build more dams.
At the end of the day it is about finding a form or a combination of energy production that has the least negative impacts in each region and environment. It’s about being smart, informed and active global citizens. And using common sense. We’ve got just a fraction of the planet we haven’t already damaged, so lets just be wise, its about time.
MORE RESOURCES FOR TEACHING AND DISPELLING THE MYTH THAT HYDROPOWER IS GREEN: