UNU report indicates aging of dams may pose risk to downstream populations

Dam aerial

By 2050, most people on Earth will live downstream of tens of thousands of large dams built in the 20th century, many of them already operating at or beyond their design life, according to a United Nations University analysis.

 “Ageing Water Infrastructure: An Emerging Global Risk” by the Canada-based UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) says most of the 58,700 large dams worldwide were constructed between 1930 and 1970 with a design life of 50 to 100 years. The report says that at 50 years a large concrete dam “would most probably begin to express signs of aging,” including increasing cases of dam failures, progressively increasing costs of dam repair and maintenance, increasing reservoir sedimentation, and loss of a dam’s functionality and effectiveness. These manifestations are “strongly interconnected,” the paper says.

The report says dams that are well-designed, constructed and maintained can “easily” reach 100 years of service but predicts an increase in decommissioning — a phenomenon gaining pace in the U.S. and Europe — as economic and practical limitations prevent aging dams from being upgraded or if their original use is now obsolete.

Worldwide, the volume of water stored behind large dams is estimated at 7,000 to 8,300 cubic km — enough to cover about 80% of Canada’s landmass under 1 m of water.

The report provides an overview of dam aging by world region and primary function — water supply, irrigation, flood control, hydropower and recreation.

It also details the increasing risk of older dams, the rising maintenance expense, the declining functionality due to sedimentation, the benefits of restoring or redesigning natural environments, and the societal impacts — pro and con — that need to be weighed by policymakers deciding what to do. Notably, “the nature of these impacts varies significantly between low- and high-income countries.”

The analysis also includes dam decommissioning or aging case studies from the U.S., France, Canada, India, Japan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Climate change will accelerate the dam aging process

“This report aims to attract global attention to the creeping issue of aging water storage infrastructure and stimulate international efforts to deal with this emerging, rising water risk,” says co-author Vladimir Smakhtin, director of UNU-INWEH. “Underlined is the fact that the rising frequency and severity of flooding and other extreme environmental events can overwhelm a dam’s design limits and accelerate a dam’s aging process. Decisions about decommissioning, therefore, need to be taken in the context of a changing climate.”

Notes lead author and UNU-INWEH Senior Researcher Duminda Perera: “This problem of aging large dams today confronts a relatively small number of countries — 93% of all the world’s large dams are located in just 25 nations. Large dam construction surged in the mid-20th century and peaked in the 1960s–1970s,” he says.

China has 23,841 large dams (40% of the world’s total). And 32,716 large dams (55% of the total) are found in just four Asian countries: China, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea — a majority of which will reach the 50-year threshold relatively soon. The same is true of many large dams in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

The pace of large dam construction has dropped dramatically in the past four decades and continues to decline in part because “the best locations for such dams globally have been progressively diminishing as nearly 50% of global river volume is already fragmented or regulated by dams,” the report says.

As well, there are strong concerns regarding the environmental and social impacts of dams, and large dams in particular, as well as emerging ideas and practices on the alternative types of water storage, nature-based solutions, and types of energy production beyond hydropower.

Drivers of dam decommissioning

Public safety, escalating maintenance costs, reservoir sedimentation and restoration of a natural river ecosystem are among the reasons driving dam decommissioning. However, most dams removed to date have been small. Decommissioning large dams (defined by the International Commission on Large Dams as 15 or more m from lowest foundation to crest, or 5 to 15 m impounding more than 3 million cubic m) is “still in its infancy, with only a few known cases in the last decade.”

“A few case studies of aging and decommissioned large dams illustrate the complexity and length of the process that is often necessary to orchestrate the dam removal safely,” adds co-author and UNU-INWEH Adjunct Professor R. Allen Curry. “Even removing a small dam requires years (often decades) of continuous expert and public involvement, and lengthy regulatory reviews. With the mass aging of dams well underway, it is important to develop a framework of protocols that will guide and accelerate the dam removal process.”

Decommissioning will also have positive and negative economic, social and ecological impacts to be considered in a local and regional social, economic and geographic context that is “critical to protect the broader, sustainable development objectives for a region,” the report says. “Overall, dam decommissioning should be seen as equally important as dam building in the overall planning process on water storage infrastructure developments.”

“Ultimately, value judgments will determine the fate of many of these large water storage structures. It is not an easy process, and thus distilling lessons from and sharing dam decommissioning experiences should be a common global goal. Lack of such knowledge and lack of its reflection in relevant regional/national policies/practices may progressively and adversely affect the ability to manage water storage infrastructure properly as it is aging.”

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Elizabeth Ingram is content director for the Hydro Review website and HYDROVISION International. She has more than 17 years of experience with the hydroelectric power industry. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethIngra4 .

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