University of East Anglia slams hydroelectric dams’ ‘green’ claims

It's a lot like a game of whack-a-mole. The human race stops one destructive behaviour but another soon takes its place. Hydroelectric dams are hot property, being built all over the world in an effort to cut our reliance on fossil fuels and slow the pace of climate change. But new research from the University of East Anglia reveals damming is far from environmentally friendly.

Bad news for dams' ‘green' status

The new study highlights the devastating effects of dam building in the Amazon – specifically the vast Amazonian Balbina Dam, one of the planet's biggest – on tropical rainforest biodiversity. And it's bad news, with all manner of mammals, birds and tortoises in trouble.

The Balbina Dam, slap-bang in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, has flooded an eye-watering amount of land. Now, instead of a beautiful, dense, undisturbed continuous forest, there's a watery landscape as far as the eye can see, dotted with an artificial archipelago of 3,546 islands.

Surveying the area in fine detail for two years

The researchers surveyed the Balbina's biodiversity over a period of two years, focusing on 37 of the thousands of islands created, adding three neighbouring continuous forest areas to the mix. They also looked at the well-being of land and tree dwelling vertebrates and plants, using high resolution satellite imagery to analyse forest degradation on the islands themselves.

The news isn't entirely unexpected since previous studies have proved massive dams drive terrible losses in fishing revenue and other socio-economic costs as well as hikes in greenhouse gas emissions. Now we know rainforest diversity is also threatened by these mega-dam projects.

Massive population losses and extinctions

We already know dams cause massive population losses in ground and tree-living species too, simply because their low-lying forest homes are flooded. But the extent of extinctions above the new water level, even when engineers create special islands for the wildlife to settle on, is looking just as traumatic.

Too many of us, not enough space

The news is worrying when dam building is at such a crescendo. Take Brazil, where literally hundreds of new dams are planned over the next few decades, in some of the world's most precious and diverse tropical forests. But it's a delicate balancing act: people need electricity and something has to give, somewhere, some time.

At the end of the day there are too many humans and not enough space, and with climate change at the top of the agenda our choices are limited. Everything we do has an impact, and it's rarely a wholly positive one.


Article by The Rainforest Foundation.

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