A New Golden Age for Dams

By Michel de Vivo, Secretary General, ICOLD
Autumn 2012

It's a new golden age for dams. During the 90s, some western nations and institutions seemed to have forgotten the major role dams played for their development. Although there were some lawful critics of the dams negative social and environmental impact, the dams positive impact on economy and development was completely put on the side.

In major emerging countries, though, like China, Brazil or India, there was no debate: dams were considered as a crucial tool for development and betterment of the standard of living in the world.

But things have changed: major western institutions, like the World Bank and the Worldwatch Institute, now acknowledge the role of dams for development. The 6th World Water Forum has recognized a crucial concept: the Water-Food-Energy nexus. Problems about Food, Water and Energy are closely interlinked and it is hardly possible to think about them separately. Something the dams specialists always defended in explaining the multipurpose nature of the reservoirs: power production, but also food production through irrigation, flood mitigation, water reserves for cities, industries and navigation on waterways, etc. This is also reflected in the World Declaration on Water Storage for Sustainable Development recently issued by ICOLD* jointly with three other international science institutions: ICID, IHA and IWRA.

Reflecting this new reality, a total of $40-45 billion was invested in large hydropower projects worldwide in 2010. The global use of hydropower increased more than 5 percent between 2009 and 2010. Hydropower use reached a record 3,427 terawatt-hours, or about 16.1 percent of global electricity consumption, by the end of 2010, continuing the rapid rate of increase experienced between 2003 and 2009.

In Vital Signs Online, the Worldwatch Institute's last publication, it is concluded that: "In the future, hydropower is likely to continue to grow because of its competitive price and climate benefits, which make it an attractive option as countries seek to lower their greenhouse gas emissions".

Of course, Europe has already built many dams for hydropower production, but there is still large capacities to be developed, particularly in South eastern Europe, where it is estimated that only 40% of hydropower potential has been developed. We have also explained here (see the Summer 2011 issue) that the pumping storage will fast develop in Europe and this has been confirmed by the April 2012 initiative launched by Germany, Switzerland and Austria to build more pumping-storage plants.

A 2010 report by Deutsche Bank Research also clearly states that there are "major trends to make hydropower a winner in Europe" and gives three reasons: "the trend towards zero-carbon power generation", the "rising electricity prices", "the growth in global energy consumption and the associated increasing relative scarcity of fossil fuel sources". Finally, Eurelectric has taken a strong stand in a September 2011 report (Hydro in Europe: Powering Renewables), calling the policymakers to "promote with all possible means the sustainable development of remaining hydro resources".


*ICOLD, International Commission on Large dams - www.icold-cigb.org