Impacts & Issues of Dams
Despite the claims by politicians and industry actors that hydro is “clean and green”, hydroelectric dam development has countless environmental, social, economic, and political impacts on communities around the world. These are complex, interconnected issues and stories that go beyond the brief summary described below. Therefore, these summaries are intended to provide a brief glimpse of the many challenges communities face, with links to our publication database for further reading. Learning and knowing these stories can help decommission existing dams, stop future ones, and lead to energy sovereignty. We encourage you to read and share the documents included in the database, read the first hand stories, and visit our campaigns page to get involved in resistance efforts to stop dams around the world.
The environmental impact of dam development cannot be understated. Before a project can begin, most companies are required to perform an environmental assessment (EA) to determine the impacts on the land and waterways. However, the regulations for EAs differ widely across and between countries, often resulting in faulty or missed calculations and assessments. This means that projects generally create much worse impacts for the surrounding ecosystems. Fish populations, in particular, are heavily impacted by the interruptions to spawning grounds, and the fluctuations of the water levels that disrupt the composition of the water. Birds, mammals, and other animals are also impacted by the changes in the land and water, which challenges their ability to live in their habitat and migrate across the water or ice, which is then felt throughout the food chain. The EAs also focus on the Western science, and do not incorporate Indigenous or traditional knowledge of the land and water systems. As a result, mega projects are often granted approval to proceed with limited or no consultation or partnership, faulty evidence, and claims that the impacts are justified for the greater good.
This kind of thinking- forcing communities to make sacrifices for urban, affluent, or majority populations- falls under the category of environmental racism. This is considered to be a form of racism, because these communities are often marginalized due to their race, and then specifically targeted by the corporations. Communities are forced or coerced into having mega energy projects built on their land, receive limited or no compensation in return, and often do not benefit from the electricity that is produced.
With the concerns of climate change, hydro continues to be supported by the communities that benefit from it, as well as politicians around the world that view dams as an easy means to achieving their climate targets. However, as the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance (NAMRA) describes, hydro cannot be considered “clean” and “green”, nor as a way to mitigate climate change. In fact, research has found that some dams produce an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as their fossil fuel alternatives. Additionally, the capacity of hydroelectric dams to operate at their intended capacity may be impacted by climate change, thereby further challenging the notion that they are a “sustainable” energy solution.
Read more here: 10 Reasons Why Large Hydropower Projects Are A Climate Disaster.
The fluctuating of the water levels associated with dams is also a major safety concern. Community members experience first hand that the water and ice are unpredictable and no longer safe for recreation or travel, as they once were. This challenge further impedes their ability to travel the river systems to hunt and fish, and connect with the land and water.
The flooding has also created serious health consequences, by disrupting vast areas of the riparian vegetation that normally plays a critical filtration role in ecosystems. As a result, methylmercury becomes more readily available to microorganisms, which then bioaccumulates in the fish and other animals that communities rely on for their food and wellbeing.
Not only are the landscape changes creating major issues, but also the transient workers that come to communities to operate the dam infrastructure. The “map camps” where outside workers are housed are found to have high incidents of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and sex trafficking. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry in Canada, among others, has also demonstrated that man camps are linked to the systemic disproportionate disappearance and abuse of Indigenous women. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous communities were further put at risk, as the governments allowed hydro dam development and operations to continue, bringing in thousands of transient workers that could carry the disease.
Despite these issues and more, communities continue to be powerful and capable of supporting themselves and the lands on which they live. Creating international networks allows groups and communities to work together to share knowledge, stories, and resources to help stop these impacts and ensure community voices are heard.
- Fearnside, Philip M. 2014. “Impacts of Brazil’s Madeira River Dams: Unlearned Lessons for Hydroelectric Development in Amazonia.” Environmental Science and Policy.
- Kourgialas, Nektarios N. and George P. Karatzas. 2013. “A Hydro-Economic Modelling Framework for Flood Damage Estimation and the Role of Riparian Vegetation.” Hydrological Processes.
- Rosenberg, D. M., F. Berkes, R. A. Bodaly, R. E. Hecky, C. A. Kelly, and J. W. M. Rudd. 2002. “Large-Scale Impacts of Hydroelectric Development.” Environmental Reviews.
- Macleans. June 3rd, 2019. MMIWG’s findings on ‘man camps’ are a good place for government to get started. Found here.