Earth Day, Every Day

Dams sorted by status (existing and planned) and size (2–99 MW, 100–999 MW, and ≥1,000 MW capacity).

Although the nationally celebrated Earth Day has just passed, it’s important to consider our impact on the environment every day.  In their recently published article “Proliferation of Hydroelectric Dams in the Andean Amazon and Implications for Andes-Amazon Connectivity,” authors Matt Finer and Clinton N. Jenkins highlight a constant environmental concern; meeting the world’s growing energy demands. Finer and Jenkins developed a strategic ecological impact assessment of planned dams from the Andes to the Amazon. Their findings point to the need for this kind of heightened environmental awareness every day.

Abstract

Due to rising energy demands and abundant untapped potential, hydropower projects are rapidly increasing in the Neotropics. This is especially true in the wet and rugged Andean Amazon, where regional governments are prioritizing new hydroelectric dams as the centerpiece of long-term energy plans. However, the current planning for hydropower lacks adequate regional and basin-scale assessment of potential ecological impacts. This lack of strategic planning is particularly problematic given the intimate link between the Andes and Amazonian flood plain, together one of the most species rich zones on Earth. We examined the potential ecological impacts, in terms of river connectivity and forest loss, of the planned proliferation of hydroelectric dams across all Andean tributaries of the Amazon River. Considering data on the full portfolios of existing and planned dams, along with data on roads and transmission line systems, we developed a new conceptual framework to estimate the relative impacts of all planned dams. There are plans for 151 new dams greater than 2 MW over the next 20 years, more than a 300% increase. These dams would include five of the six major Andean tributaries of the Amazon. Our ecological impact analysis classified 47% of the potential new dams as high impact and just 19% as low impact. Sixty percent of the dams would cause the first major break in connectivity between protected Andean headwaters and the lowland Amazon. More than 80% would drive deforestation due to new roads, transmission lines, or inundation. We conclude with a discussion of three major policy implications of these findings. 1) There is a critical need for further strategic regional and basin scale evaluation of dams. 2) There is an urgent need for a strategic plan to maintain Andes-Amazon connectivity. 3) Reconsideration of hydropower as a low-impact energy source in the Neotropics.

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