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Rivers, Dams and Climate Change

IRN is working to raise awareness among policy makers and the public that dams can be important emitters of greenhouse gases, and that climate change will have significant impacts on the safety and performance of dams.

Hydropower lobbyists are promoting dams as "climate-friendly," hoping that the potentially huge sums of money to be generated through carbon trading will give the dam-building industry a much-needed boost. Yet a growing body of evidence indicates that dams and reservoirs are globally significant sources of emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and, in particular, methane. Scientists have done field studies of emissions of one or both gases at around 30 reservoirs, mostly in Canada and Brazil. Emissions were recorded at all the reservoirs surveyed.

There are a number of reasons why even policy makers and scientists involved in the climate issue are not more aware of the issue: the science is still relatively young, only a handful of researchers are working on the issue, little has been published on it in peer-reviewed journals and numerous uncertainties about net emissions levels remain to be resolved. However, in spite of uncertainties, current evidence justifies consideration of reservoir emissions in international climate change policies and mechanisms, as well as their inclusion in national emissions inventories.

Just as dams are impacting global warming, a changing climate holds major implications for the safety and performance of dams. Increases in the severity and frequency of droughts would reduce hydropower production and water storage. Increased floods threaten dam safety and may increase reservoir sedimentation. Climate change will add to existing stresses on riverine ecosystems from dams, channelization, pollution and watershed degradation. The safety of existing dams needs to be reassessed in the light of possible precipitation changes. Feasibility and impact studies for future dams should allow for the hydrological uncertainties of a warming world.


latest additions

Four Percent of Global Warming Due to Dams, Says New Research
Large dams may be one of the single most important contributors to global warming, releasing 104 million metric tonnes of methane each year—more than four percent of the total warming impact of all human activities.
Fizzy Science: The Battle Over Dam-created Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  Fizzy Science
A bitter debate has broken out in the scientific community over hydropower’s contribution to global warming. A leading climate scientist calculates that there are startlingly high levels of greenhouse gas emissions when water is released from the turbines and spillways of dams in the tropics. But hydro industry-backed researchers have sharply attacked his work. An IRN report, "Fizzy Science: Loosening the Hydro Industry’s Grip on Reservoir Greenhouse Gas Emissions Research," calls for a UN scientific panel to review the issue.  
World Bank Fails to Live Up to Its Clean Energy Mandate
Instead of promoting new, sustainable energy technologies, the World Bank keeps pushing big dams.
European Public Banks Accept WCD Recommendations on Carbon-Credit Projects
The two biggest public banks in Europe, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), have announced that they will take into account the World Commission on Dams’ recommendations in their new carbon-credit funds.
German Government Ignores WCD, CDM Compliance Standards
German government policy requires that hydro projects from which Germany buys CDM emission credits should comply with WCD standards. However, the German Government is a partner with the World Bank in developing a hydro project for the CDM that has not demonstrated its compliance with the WCD. The project documents for La Esperanza hydro project in Honduras do not even mention the WCD. No additional documentation has been made available showing the compliance of the project with WCD standards. Please read a letter from international NGOs protesting the breach of German CDM policy. Please also read the German Minister for Environment’s reply and a second NGO letter which responds to the Minister’s letter.
The World Bank and CDM Large Hydros
Status Note for COP10 Buenos Aires, Argentina. By International Rivers Network and CDM Watch.
12 2004
Spanish Version of Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, By Patrick McCully, Launches in Buenos Aires
Rios Silenciados, by Patrick McCully  
During the Tenth Session of the International Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we celebrate the launch of Ríos Silenciados: Ecología y Política de las Grandes Represas, the much-awaited Spanish version of the acclaimed book Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, by Patrick McCully. (Español)
Tropical Hydropower is a Significant Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Prepared for COP10, this report responds to International Hydropower Association claims regarding greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs. Available in PDF format.
A Preliminary Review of the Impact of Dam Reservoirs on Carbon Cycling
A report prepared for International Rivers Network by Payal Parekh. Available in PDF format.
Powering a Sustainable Future: The Role of Large Hydropower in Sustainable Development
Examines the role of large hydro in sustainable development and suggests principles to ensure cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable development of the world’s energy resources. Available in PDF format.
260 Groups Sign-On to Exclude Large Hydro from Renewables Initiatives
This declaration calls for large hydropower to be excluded from efforts to promote clean and renewable energies. It was originally prepared for the "Renewables 2004" conference in Bonn. The declaration, "Renewables Yes! Big Hydro No!" is a summary of 12 Reasons to Exclude Large Hydro from Renewables Initiatives. Read in German or Spanish (PDF) Read the IRN press release. (PDF)