Modelling the Effects of Dams

NASA image of 3 gorges

Why dams matter…

“This century we have collectively bought, on average, one large dam per day.”

-World Commission on Dams, 2000

Dams deliver many benefits, but often at a high price with adverse and lasting impacts. Though this dam modeling project, we are forming lasting and productive collaborations around the direct explication and assessment of the socioeconomic, biophysical and geopolitical impacts, both beneficial and nonbeneficial, associated with dams. Through the development of new tools that examine how dams stimulate change and how we may project potential ecological, economic, and socio-cultural outcomes of such change, this project may reduce uncertainty and risks associated with constructing (and removing) dams.

“Dams have long escaped deep and clear and impartial
scrutiny into the process by which they emerge and are valued”

-Kader Asmal (2000) , Chair, World Commission on Dams

 

Why study dams in China?

Regional distribution of dams (from WCD 2000)

Lancang River

This project is investigating the potential impacts of hydropower development in the Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong) Rivers of China through the integrated assessment of biophysical, socio-economic, and geopolitical outcomes. We are evaluating the role of dams as agents of change on the ecological, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of a community, using the geopolitical condition as an indication of the resiliency of the human system to accommodate those changes. To make such an evaluation, we first developed IDAM (Interdisciplinary Dam Assessment Model) as an interdisciplinary tool to a) increase transparency of and inform decisionmaking, and b) to research how people make decisions. General goals of the current project are to 1) promote an international and interdisciplinary research community, 2) apply the IDAM tool to investigate questions around how people make decisions 3) evaluate distribution of impacts for specific projects in the Nu and Lancang basins on cultural, geographical, and ecological communities.

In addition to the general development and application of the IDAM tool, our current analysis includes detailed inquiries into the effects of dams on social and environmental dynamics. For example, we have used event mapping to develop a chronosequence of conflict and cooperation for the purpose of identifying the drivers of conflict and change for the two river basins over time, both within and outside of China. This analysis also includes a mapping of conflict and change hotspots to evaluate the extent to which dams modify social and environmental dynamics over space. These analyses allow us to develop and analyze hypotheses stemming from several questions regarding hydropower development as an agent of change. Do geographical and cultural links to the river affect the degree of benefits or losses associated with dam construction based on organizational scales? Do drivers identified in Mekong River basin also drive the most profound changes in the Nu River? What are the critical links between environmental and social welfare and dynamics?

A second inquiry explores scenarios for building dams that minimize their negative impacts on social and environmental quality.  This inquiry addresses a second set of questions regarding dams as agents of change, and leads to understanding and recommendation for informing future hydropower development and management.   What scenarios allow the greatest potential for mitigating policies and environmental changes (e.g. climate variability) to result in a future different than that predicted by history-based scenarios?  What is the relative scale of cumulative effects for many small, decentralized hydropower development relative to large, mainstem projects? How does relocation induce group-identity conflicts (e.g. ethnic clashes)? Do changes in local resource availability result in deprivation conflicts (e.g. civil strife and insurgency)?

A third inquiry targets improving understanding on decisionmaking around dams. For these analyses, we are applying the IDAM tool, using the data collected in the Nu and Lancang basins, in a decisiontheater format with representatives of dam building and regulating agencies, as well as environmental and social NGOs, in China and internationally. Through a series of survey questions throughout the decision theater, we are investigating how information, individual values, and views on risk influence decisionmaking. For example, we ask:  How does informing the stakeholders of impact magnitude influence their prioritization of the impacts?  How are different design alternatives ranked by different stakeholders? What decision rules are stakeholders using to assign ranking of alternatives? What alternatives are indistinguishable in terms of views on risk? and salience? How much change in salience of attribute performance does it take to shift the ranking of alternatives?

Research Sites

IDAM calibration:

Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) River Basins

Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China

 

 

Lancang River Basin

The Lancang (upper Mekong) River has its source in Qinghai’s Yushu Tibetan Nationality Autonomous County, some 5500 m above sea level in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It then flows roughly 2400 km through Qinghai, Tibet, and Yunnan before leaving China and winding its way through portions of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Fully half the river’s length lies within China. The river’s drop in Yunnan – some 1780 m – has long attracted the attention of China’s hydropower planners keen to develop some of the 25 GW of theoretical capacity (100 TWh annual output) on that stretch of the river. The Lancang’s remote location, distance from load centers, and challenging terrain, however, meant that detailed planning didn’t really get underway until the 1980s.

The Lancang encompasses glacial, riverine, lake, and groundwater hydrological characteristics, ranging from arctic to tropical in nature. Within Yunnan, the basin is home to approximately 5 million people, many of whom are members of ethnic minority groups who have yet to see many of the benefits of the rapid economic development witnessed by China in recent years.

As of 2010, there are several dams in various stages of operation on the Lancang within Yunnan: Manwan, Dachaoshan, and Jinghong (completed); Xiaowan and Nuozhadu (underway); and Ganlanba, Mengsong, and Gongguoqiao (preliminary work). Up to six other dams on the upper Lancang in Yunnan are also in various stages of planning and design.

Nu River Basin

The Nu (upper Salween) River is one of the most remote and least developed rivers in China. The river’s name in Chinese means “angry,” which may be attributed to the steep route it takes from its headwaters at 4840 m above sea level in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to its mouth at the Andaman Sea off southern Myanmar. On the way, the Nu traverses some 2000 km in Tibet and Yunnan before winding its way through Myanmar for another 800 km, where it briefly forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand. Over its 621-km course in Yunnan, the river drops 1116 m, yielding a theoretical hydropower capacity of some 21 GW (roughly 103 TWh annual output).

The Nu is a watershed of superlatives. In addition to being one of the most remote, it is also one of the deepest gorges on the planet, home to some of China’s richest cultural and biological diversity, and the site of some of the province’s and the country’s poorest areas. Even more remote than the Lancang, the Nu has yet to see large-scale development of its hydropower, in part due to concern that such development would impinge upon internationally recognized sites of cultural and biological importance. In March 2004 the projects were officially halted by Premier Wen Jiabao, allegedly for failure to comply with environmental impact assessment reporting requirements. While none of the 13 projects planned for the Nu has yet been officially approved, preliminary work, including construction of resettlement villages and relocation of villagers away from planned reservoir sites, is underway.

Peer-reviewed Manuscripts

  1. Tullos, D.D., P.H. Brown, K.M. Kibler, D. Magee, B. Tilt, and A.T. Wolf, 2010. Perspectives on salience and magnitide of dam impacts for hydrodevelopment scenarios in China. Water Alternatives 3(2): 71-90.
  2. Brown, P.H., and Y.L. Xu, 2010. Hydropower devlopment and resettlement policy on China’s Nu River. Journal of Contemporary China, 66(19): 777-797.
  3. Brown, P.H., D. Magee, and Y.L. Xu, 2010. Socioeconomic vulnerability in China’s hydropower development. China Economic Review, 19(4): 614-627.
  4. Brown, P.H., et al., 2008. Modeling the costs and benefits of dam construction from a multidisciplinary perspective, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.025

Journal of Environmental Management Special Issue

  1. Tullos, D., Introduction to the special issue: Understanding and linking the biophysical, socioeconomic and geopolitical effects of dams, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), oi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.08.018
  2. Tullos, D., Assessing the influence of environmental impact assessments on science and policy: An analysis of
    the Three Gorges Project, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.031
  3. Burke, M., et al., Application of a hierarchical framework for assessing environmental impacts of dam operation:Changes in streamflow, bed mobility and recruitment of riparian trees in a western North American river, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.022
  4. Schmitz, D., et al., Using historic aerial photography and paleohydrologic techniques to assess long-term ecological response to two Montana dam removals, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.028
  5. Bohlen, C., Lynne Y. Lewis, Examining the economic impacts of hydropower dams on property values using GIS, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), oi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.026
  6. Wyrick, J.R. et al., Using hydraulic modeling to address social impacts of small dam removals in southern New Jersey, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.027
  7. Tilt, B., et al., Social impacts of large dam projects: A comparison of international case studies and implications for best practice, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.030
  8. McNally, A., et al., Hydropower and sustainability: Resilience and vulnerability in China’s powersheds, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.029
  9. McDonald, K., et al., Exporting dams: China’s hydropower industry goes global, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.023
  10. Meierotto, L., The uneven geographies of transnational advocacy: The case of the Talo Dam, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.024
  11. Brown, P.H., Modeling the costs and benefits of dam construction from a multidisciplinary perspective, Journal of Environmental Management (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.07.025

Conference Proceedings

  1. Brown: ‘Energy Sustainability and Socioeconomic Development in the People’s Republic of China,’ Colby Club of Hawaii (Honolulu,Hawaii), January 2010.
  2. Brown: ‘Energy Sustainability and Socioeconomic Development in the People’s Republic of China,’ Colby Leadership Council (New York,New York), October 2009.
  3. Brown: ‘Energy, Dams, and Development in Rural China’, World Affairs Council of Maine (Brunswick, Maine), April 2010.
  4. Brown, P. and Xu, Y. 2010. Dams and Development in the Nu River Valley? Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  5. Foster-Moore, E. 2010. Information Flow in Dam-Affected Communities. Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  6. Brown, P. and Xu, Q. 2010. Behavioral Responses to Nu Dam Construction in Yunnan, China. Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  7. Magee: Invited Lecture, ‘Sustaining China: Challenges and Opportunities in Water, Energy, and Society,’ National Youth Science Foundation (Charleston, West Virginia), June 29, 2010.
  8. Magee: Invited Lecture (via teleconference), ‘China’s Transboundary Rivers: Dams, Development, & Institutions,’ Workshop on China Water Scarcity, Society and Adaptation, Oxford University (Oxford, UK), June 15, 2010.
  9. Tullos, D., P. Brown, D. Magee, and B. Tilt. 2010. ‘Assessing and Modeling Dam Impacts in China.’ Half the World 2010: Energy andEnvironment in East Asia. Research Symposium. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, February.
  10. Tilt, B. 2009. Dams and Development in Southwest China: Implications for Yunnan’s Minority Nationalities.’ American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December.
  11. Clark, M. and B. Tilt. 2009. ‘Dams and Development in China: Working Toward Greater Transparency in Decision-making.’ Society for Applied Anthropology, Annual Meeting, Santa Fe, New Mexico, March.
  12. Brown, P. and Xu, Y. 2010. Dams and Development in the Nu River Valley? Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  13. Foster-Moore, E. 2010. Information Flow in Dam-Affected Communities. Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  14. Brown, P. and Xu, Q. 2010. Behavioral Responses to Nu Dam Construction in Yunnan, China. Chinese Economists Society, June 19-21, 2010 in Xiamen, China.
  15. Magee: Invited Lecture (via teleconference), ‘China’s Transboundary Rivers: Dams, Development, & Institutions,’ Workshop on China Water Scarcity, Society and Adaptation, Oxford University (Oxford, UK), June 15, 2010.
  16. Tullos, D., P. Brown, D. Magee, and B. Tilt. 2010. ‘Assessing and Modeling Dam Impacts in China.’ Half the World 2010: Energy and Environment in East Asia. Research Symposium. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, February.
  17. Tilt, B. 2009. Dams and Development in Southwest China: Implications for Yunnan’s Minority Nationalities.’ American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December.
  18. Clark, M. and B. Tilt. 2009. ‘Dams and Development in China: Working Toward Greater Transparency in Decision-making.’ Society for Applied Anthropology, Annual Meeting, Santa Fe, New Mexico, March.

IDAM Theses

  1. Clark, M. 2009. Climbing the mountain within: understanding development impacts and overcoming change in rural southwest China. MA thesis. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.
  2. Lin, E . 2009. Water’s role in a sense of place in the Nu River Valley. MA project. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.