More than 500 dams are planned or under construction within protected areas, according to a new study published in Conservation Letters. These findings raise red flags as dams can have detrimental impacts on livelihoods of local communities such as fishing and floodplain farming, species movements, sediment flows to downstream deltas and floodplains, and other critical river functions.
“Rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems. Any policy that aims to conserve nature must prioritize the free flow of rivers,” said Michele Thieme, lead author of the study and lead freshwater scientist at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “Protected areas are a fundamental strategy for conserving biodiversity and services to people, but their design and management to protect freshwater ecosystems must be improved.”
Freshwater biodiversity is declining dramatically. Populations of freshwater vertebrates (mammals, wetland birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) have seen an 83% decline between 1970 and 2014. One of the primary drivers of this decline are dams and other water infrastructure that impact the natural habitats of freshwater species like river dolphins, otters, migratory fish and tens of thousands of other species.
The paper also finds that over 1,200 large dams already exist within protected areas. Almost three-quarters (907) of these dams were built before protected area establishment. Anecdotal cases suggest that protection may be put in place to prevent sediment from filling the reservoir and affecting energy or water supply, as well as recreational opportunities on the artificial lake created by the reservoir.
There are also instances of governments redefining the boundaries of protected areas, and activities permitted within them, to legalize the construction of a dam within an existing protected area. When regulations on protected areas are loosened in such a way, protected areas lose their ability to conserve ecosystems.
“The sheer number of dams that are planned within protected areas is alarming,” says Thieme. “Government and industry policies must prevent the development of dams planned within these areas. The dams that already exist within protected areas should be prioritized for possible removal and the surrounding river systems should be restored.”
This study comes at a time when the adverse impacts of dams and reservoirs are clearer than ever. A 2019 paper published in Nature finds that over two-thirds of long rivers are impeded by dams and infrastructure. Dams fragment rivers and affect the diverse benefits that healthy rivers provide to people and nature across the globe.
The new study also underscores the importance of avoiding harmful rollbacks to protected areas, including those that increase infrastructure development like dams. Rollbacks have been occurring even during the global pandemic, a time when the public cannot adequately participate in decision-making processes. Governments must stop these rollbacks, and can use economic recovery plans as an opportunity to increase and improve nature protections to help reduce future pandemic risk.
With the falling price of wind and solar, governments should explore other alternative renewable energy sources to fulfill energy needs beyond damming rivers. A 2019 report, Connected and Flowing, details how the world can meet climate targets and protect rivers by shifting a portion of projected future hydropower development toward increased investment in wind and solar generation and carefully siting new hydropower projects.
This research uses the World Database on Protected Areas, global dam data from Global Dam Watch, and protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement data from PADDDTracker.
Protected Areas are clearly defined geographical spaces, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. These include nature reserves, RAMSAR sites, indigenous areas, and national parks, among others.