From Austria and Romania to Brasil: WWF criticizes dam projects around the world
“Properly planned, built, and operated dams can contribute to food and energy security. Unfortunately, short-term interests are too often the focus of decision-making“, says Dr. Jian-hua Meng, Water Security specialist for WWF.
In order to guarantee acceptable levels of social and environmental sustainability, dam installations and operations should be strictly checked against sustainability criteria as formulated under the World Commission on Dams or the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.
According to the report, the size of a dam is not necessarily the deciding factor. Though numerous mega-projects can be found on WWF’s list, the cumulative impact of many small hydro projects, like for instance in Romania, cannot be underestimated.
“Not many people know that the environmental impact of small hydropower plants can be higher than that of large installations, if there are several plants in the same river system and mitigation measures are weak, as is the case in the Romanian Fagaras Mountains”, said Irene Lucius, Head of Policy at the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme. “Similar disastrous projects are in the planning or implementation stage across the Danube region, from the Ukrainian Carpathians to areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
“While we are not opposing hydropower in the Danube region, WWF is of the opinion that some ecologically intact river stretches are of such high value to nature and local communities that conservation should always be given preference to hydropower development. There are other renewable energy sources besides hydropower that can be developed and the potential for energy saving, the most cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly alternative, is very high across the Danube region”, Lucius said.
In the Danube river basin, dams can block fish migration but also the movement of river gravel, which leads to the erosion of the river bed, loss of habitats and ecosystem functioning.
“These costs to nature and society are not properly assessed, nor reflected in the cost-benefit analysis of hydropower plants. Pressures are likely to drastically increase, in particular as impacts can never be fully compensated and a wave of wrongly sited hydropower plants is in the planning stage across the Danube region”, Lucius added.
For example, if the extension of the Kaunertal hydroelectric power plants is implemented in Austria as currently planned, then heavy ecological deterioration looms for three alpine valleys in the Ötztal Alps.
"What is more, many unsustainable hydropower projects are only feasible because they are being subsidized, e.g. by EU funds. Although public support for renewable energy is an important measure against climate change, these funding mechanisms must undergo a "biodiversity check", otherwise they are counter-productive", Lucius said.
More about “Seven Sins of Dam Building“WWF reviewed nine dams. The report found that many projects commit not just one, but many grave sins of dam building. However, these errors are avoidable. Lack of capacity, economic pressure, or specific regional circumstances can no longer be presented as excuses.
According to the report, no proper outcomes can be expected when dam proponents rely on superior financial strength and political connections rather than on dialogue, transparency, and reason.
Moreover, some governments lack the capacity or independence to protect public interests. Acceptance of the project by the population is fundamental for sustainable management. Negative effects, such as relocation, destruction of cultural sites, or the collapse of local fisheries are still too often dismissed as "somebody else’s problem."
Additional sins relate to environmental issues according to the WWF report. Scientific evidence and risk assessments too frequently lose out to one-sided political or economic agendas. Subsequently, dams are still planned and built in areas of high ecological importance. Biodiversity loss is still too often considered acceptable. Serious impacts, caused by a change in the natural water flow dynamics or the disappearance of wetlands, are still not given due consideration.