CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Do the Benefits of Massive Hydroelectric Power Projects Outweigh the Environmental Costs of These Projects? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Although the impacts of large dams have been well documented for some time now, in case after case, new ones are proposed whose environmental impacts are downplayed or even ignored. A 1990 internal survey of World Bank hydroelectric dam projects showed that 58% were planned and built without any consideration of downstream impacts, even when these impacts could be predicted to cause massive coastal erosion, pollution and other problems.
International Rivers Network

Currently, hydropower is a critical component of many electrical systems. Throughout the world it provides one-fifth of the electricity used, and it is second to fossil energy as a source of power. In the United States, it provides 10% of the electricity used, down from 14% 20 years ago, but more than petroleum and far more than the other renewable technologies combined. U.S. hydropower plants produce the energy equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil per year. On a regional basis, hydropower is a source of 14% of the electricity used in the Rocky Mountain states and 63% of that used along the Pacific coast. The Pacific Northwest is the region of the country that relies most heavily on hydropower; two-thirds of its electricity comes from 58 hydroelectric dams.
Mike Sale of Oak Ridge National Laboratories

Although the idea of using waterpower has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, it wasn't until 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin, that falling water was used for the first time to produce electricity. Over 100 years later, there are an estimated 40,000 large dams in use worldwide. In the past it seemed that dams were built for "the greater good" without regard for those whose property would be flooded by the huge reservoirs that the dams created or for the environment. Dams were sold to the public as providers of cheap and reliable electricity, flood control, irrigation water and recreational areas. Critics argue though, that delayed construction schedules rapidly increase the costs of dam construction providing the country that undertook the construction with unmanageable debts; debts that are paid for at the expense of other necessities such as health care and education.

In addition to the economic pitfalls of large-scale dam construction there are also environmental consequences. These consequences include such things as conversion of river habitats to lake habitats, blockage of migration routes of fish, prevention of the movement of nutrient-rich silt downstream of the dam and the destruction of property and cultural treasures, to name only a few. As more and more people have become aware of the effects of large-scale dam construction, fewer and fewer large-scale dam projects have been proposed. Communities have been effective at blocking construction in some countries and delaying construction in many others. The public has also been effective at lobbying development agencies such as the World Bank to cut back funding for large-scale projects. Three controversial large-scale dam projects are outlined below.

Three Gorges Dam - Yangtze River, China

One of the most controversial dam projects, Three Gorges Dam is expected to generate 18,200 Megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of 23 large nuclear or fossil fuel power plants, about 10% of China's electricity requirements. Once the water level has risen behind the dam (flooding is scheduled to start some time in the year 2004), 13 cities, 140 towns and 1352 villages will have been inundated by flood waters displacing approximately 2,000,000 people. The Chinese government has already built entire new villages higher up the sides of valleys but there is reluctance among the citizenry to move. Final construction costs for the project have been estimated to range from $17 - $75 Billion.

Southeast Anatolia Project - Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Turkey

This is a massive project, which calls for 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants to be built along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This $32 Billion project is causing concern among various groups for more than environmental reasons though. Originating in Turkey, these rivers make their way to the Persian Gulf via Syria and Iraq, two neighbors that have had hostile relations with Turkey in the past. Former United Nations Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali once warned an American think-tank that the next war in the Near East "will not be about politics, but over water. Washington does not take this threat seriously because everything in the U.S. relates to oil." In spite of these concerns, the Turkish government continues with the project.

Mekong River - Southeast Asia

Numerous dam projects have been proposed for the Mekong River system by the six Southeast Asian countries encompassed by the watershed without any coordination among those countries. Real or imagined concerns these countries have of "water blackmail" by the others may result in regional conflict. These areas are especially affected by seasonal rainfall. During the monsoon season the Mekong flows at 50,000 cubic meters per second, whereas during the dry season that flow is reduced to as low as 2,000 cubic meters per second. Countries upstream will undoubtedly fare better than those downstream once the dams are constructed.

Whether in countries such as those of Southeast Asia, Turkey, the U.S. or China, hydroelectric dams ranging in capacity from 600 to 18,000 MW are having and will continue to have an impact on the environment as well as on the politics of the region. As scientists, rather than merely expound on the deleterious effects of dams, we need to find alternatives sooner rather than later.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Questions
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • International Rivers Network - About Rivers and Dams
    This webpage outlines some of the basics of hydroelectric dams. There are also links off of this page to more information, such as the November 2000 report of the World Commission on Dams and opposition to dams.
  • Interview with Mike Sale and Chuck Coutant of Oak Ridge National Laboratories
    This is an in-house interview from the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) website. In it Mike Sale and Chuck Coutant of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division discuss the importance of hydroelectric power and its environmental impacts.
  • Providing Power in the Public Interest - Tennessee Valley Authority
    This is the website of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Here you can find information on the 29 dams administered by the TVA as well as information about their associated recreation areas. Its interesting to note that the TVA has their own accredited law enforcement agency.
  • International Rivers Network - Dams: What They Are and What They Do
    This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Patrick McCully's book: "Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams". It includes an explanation of how dams work, a brief history of dams and concludes with a section on the large dams of the United States.
  • Friends of the River - California's Statewide River Conservation Organization
    These two articles "The Energy Crisis: New Hydroelectric Dams Are Not The Solution" and "Don't Sacrifice Rivers for More Power" focus on California's energy crisis of 2001 and proposed solutions to the crisis.
  • The Flawed Economics of Large Hydroelectric Dams - The Cornerhouse (1998)
    This is a "briefing" on hydroelectric dams published by The Corner House, which aims to "support the growth of a democratic, equitable and non-discriminatory civil society in which communities have control over the resources and decisions that affect their lives..." It is a lengthy paper with numerous references.
  • China Online - Three Gorges Dam Project
    This government sponsored website has a fairly large amount of information concerning the project. Statistics related to the project, history of the project and a debate over the dam are here. Interestingly, there is a table that includes pros and cons of the dam construction.
  • International Rivers Network's Three Gorges Campaign
    The International Rivers Network has several campaigns to stop dam construction around the world. In this short article they outline their objections to the funding of the dam project by the large investment bank, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
  • STOP the Construction of Three Gorges Dam!
    One of the more vociferous sites, is opposed to Morgan Stanley's funding of several dam construction projects in Asia, including the Three Gorges Dam. You can take a photo tour of some of the areas that will be flooded when the dam is completed.
  • Three Gorges Dam A 'Toxic Time Bomb'
    This article by David Rennie appeared recently on the Daily Telegraph's (Great Britain) website. In it he describes the toxic 'cocktail' that will be stored in the dam's reservoir, "... a cocktail of arsenic, mercury, lead, cyanide and other cancer-causing heavy metals in a reservoir designed to water some of China's most fertile farmland."
  • Three Gorges Probe: Three Gorges Dam Petitioners Abducted
    This article for Probe International by Wang Yusheng describes a frightening tale of intimidation and local corruption where resettlement is concerned. Mr. Yusheng is a freelance reporter based in Chongqing.
  • History of Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP)
    This is the official Turkish government website for the Southeastern Anatolia Project (or GAP as it is known by its Turkish acronym). Find everything the government ever wanted you to know about GAP here.
  • Water Issues Between Turkey, Syria and Iraq
    If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of the geopolitical ramifications of large-scale hydroelectric projects, this is the site for you. The study presented here is specific to the water problem in the Turkey-Syria-Iraq region but does also include other regional water disputes, such as that between the U.S. and Mexico. A very interesting site.
  • Protests Grow Over Plan for More Turkish Dams
    National Geographic builds on its excellent reputation with this article about the GAP. The article gives some background on the project, outlines concerns by Syria and Iraq and describes the views of environmentalists in the region.
  • Mekong Roundup
    This article from 1997 on the International Rivers Network website a number of dam projects on the Mekong River system of Southeast Asia.
  • Work On Largest Hydropower Plant May Start in 2004
    The Son La Dam project in Vietnam, the country's most ambitious project to date, has been put on hold due to technical and capital problems. The article tends to be pro-dam though it does address some options and concerns in a sidebar.
  • Mekong River Development May Trigger Conflict
    This is an excellent article describing the concerns of all parties in the Mekong River watershed that will be affected by construction of numerous dams on the Mekong's tributaries. Without cooperation, water could be at the center of regional conflict.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003