When the United Nations took stock of the global human condition at the turn of the millennium, its findings were quite alarming: More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 billion lack electricity for heating and lighting their homes or refrigerating their food.
In response to this humanitarian crisis, many countries are building new dams to provide water supply and electricity. Nearly 400 dams are planned or under construction in Central America, 200 in Brazil, and, in China, nearly 50 in the Yangtze River basin alone.
These development plans present daunting challenges for a conservation organization such as The Nature Conservancy. Clearly, additional development of water infrastructure will be needed in developing regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America to alleviate poverty and improve human health.
But at the same time, we very well understand the potential consequences for river ecosystems in those countries. Dams block the fluid highways used by migrating fish, and rearrange natural water-flow patterns that have choreographed aquatic life cycles for millennia.
Analogs to human health are instructive: While water pollution is as harmful as excessive cholesterol in a bloodstream, the construction of dams has in many rivers been as fatal as cardiac arrest.
Today, there are more than 45,000 large dams on the planet. Less than two percent of U.S. rivers — and less than 40 percent of all large rivers in the world — remain free-flowing and relatively undeveloped.
In the context of a world that has already experienced so much ecological damage, it’s unnerving to contemplate a lot more river development, even when motivated by humanitarian concerns.
Fortunately, many environmental organizations are questioning whether water and electricity needs can be met in less-damaging ways. The Conservancy is using its unique role as environmental advisor and mediator for many governments and the dam industry — drawing on our considerable scientific capacity, water engineering expertise and reputation for collaborative solutions.
We are reinvigorating many degraded rivers by improving dam operations through partnerships with water agencies — such as our work with the Army Corps of Engineers in nine U.S. locations. In other countries such as China and Honduras, we are working with energy agencies in planning new dams, to help them avoid ecological damage.
In so doing, we are helping to illuminate a pathway toward a sustainable future in which humans prosper and the heartbeat of the planet’s rivers remains strong.February 23, 2011
Director, Freshwater Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy