New Study Finds That Many Dams Are Located In Protected Areas, Many More Planned

Lake Mead National Recreation Area      Photo: National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

A recent study published in Conservation Letters found that over 500 dams in planning stages or already constructed are located within protected areas. As Yale E360 reported this week, this study is significant in that it is the first to measure how many dams are being built in protected areas, including in national parks, nature reserves, indigenous areas, and more. Dams may have been the impetus for creating some protected areas, but they also disrupt river flows, impede sedimentation along rivers, impact freshwater temperature regimes, and lead to downstream changes that diminish water quality and negatively impact aquatic organisms.

Why This Matters: As the article in Conservation Letters lays out, these protected areas are an “essential tool” in the conservation of freshwater biodiversity. By encroaching on protected areas, critical biodiversity is diminished. And, as the WWF explained in a statement, such dams can also injure the livelihoods of local communities who rely on fishing and floodplain farming for their livelihood.  So how should we respond to this new data? Michele Thieme, lead author of the study, put it best: “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.”

The Effects of Dams

We often think of dams as a positive thing, as they can help generate hydroelectric power that is “clean.” And yet, in addition to the oftentimes spiky geopolitics associated with them, dams can cause many unintended consequences to a river system. As Yale E360 wrote, “Rivers serve as natural corridors that help maintain biodiversity, but dams can disrupt these corridors and damage the habitats of freshwater fish, such as river dolphins, otters, and fish.” This is coming at a time when freshwater biodiversity is “declining dramatically,” with an 83% decline in freshwater vertebrates in a period of just 34 years.

This decline can have immense impacts on local communities. The World Commission on Dams estimates that dams have caused the displacement of 40 to 80 million people globally, in just the last 60 years. As Josh Klemm, policy director of International Rivers, told MongaBay, “The study’s findings are alarming but also ring true with our experience, where we have seen a dramatic increase in dams being built in extremely sensitive areas.”  According to the study, more than “two‐thirds of long rivers (>1,000 km) are no longer free‐flowing. By 2030, assuming completion of all hydropower dams planned or under construction, natural hydrologic flows will be altered for 93% of river volume globally.”

Rollbacks Galore

 The other impact of the new study, as the WWF noted in their statement, is that it demonstrates why we must avoid rollbacks to conservation efforts. The study showed many legal protections for dams were being “downgrade[d],” “downsize[d],” or “degazette[d],” the last of which refers to the total elimination of protected areas. These rollbacks, WWF pointed out, are continuing to take place globally even during the COVID-19 pandemic. To quote the WWF, “governments must stop these rollbacks, and can use economic recovery plans as an opportunity to increase and improve nature protections to help future pandemic risk.”

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