(December 29, 2009) AMHERST, Mass. – Guy Lanza, a University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist, isn’t the only environmental scientist concerned that the hydroelectric power industry isn’t as green as it tries to seem, but he is certainly among the most willing to challenge it. In a report in the January/February edition of WorldWatch magazine, Lanza and a co-author warn that hydroelectric facilities from China to Belize are destroying ecosystems and uprooting locals “under the guise of promoting cheap, clean energy.”
Lanza and Aviva Imhof, campaigns director for International Rivers of Berkeley, Calif., write that “the industry’s attempt to repackage hydropower as a green, renewable technology is both misleading and unsupported by the facts, and alternatives are often preferable.”
Their report looks at hydroelectric projects in China, the Amazon and Africa to assess the impact on rivers, watersheds and people. Lanza, director of UMass Amherst’s Environmental Science Program, says the industry has mounted a public relations offensive to promote itself as green, and powerful institutions like the World Bank are buying it, but the reality is these projects are just the opposite of green and can cause severe, long-lasting damage. “I have real reservations about promoting hydropower as green power when in most cases it’s not,” he says.
“The stakes are high, because healthy rivers, like all intact ecosystems, are priceless,” he and Imhof write. Often an advocate for local people most affected by dams—those living, fishing and farming along the rivers—Lanza says these populations “are not really on anyone’s radar screen.” Unlike builders who can hire consultants to evaluate possible ecological risks before constructing hydroelectric facilities and monitoring them, local citizens and environmental groups don’t have money to conduct their own evaluations.
This is where Lanza can help, as a guest scientist with such groups as International Rivers and the Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO). He often finds serious engineering miscalculations in construction companies’ environmental impact assessments, Lanza adds. His technical reviews help to sort out whether dam builders are meeting water quality and other standards.
One of the most recent projects to which he contributed is review of the Chalillo Dam in Belize, which he says muddied the water downstream with yellow sediment churned up from the Macal River. Though the Chalillo Dam was completed only four years ago, he found 30 years’ worth of sediment has already built up behind it—10 times more than engineers predicted in the environmental impact assessment. Lanza and BELPO recently filed an affidavit in Belize’s Supreme Court, suggesting that the construction company should conduct biomonitoring to assess the dam’s effect on ecological communities, which he says have been severely affected.
Lanza continues to play a major role in trying to preserve the Chalillo River’s native ecology. Sediment plumes harm both ecological and human communities because high sediment levels in the water known as turbidity blocks sunlight and prevents plant and microbes from photosynthesizing. High sediment load also promotes infectious bacteria and viruses because disinfectant chemicals such as chlorine are not as efficient in turbid water. And not only do humans and livestock lose clean drinking water, but local communities, who once enjoyed more of a balance with nature, are now destroyed and dislocated, Lanza adds.
Another area where Lanza has been active recently in checking claims about new dams is Southeast Asia. It was in Thailand, one of the first nations to build large hydro power facilities 30 years ago, that he began studying their environmental impacts. Now projects in China, Cambodia and Vietnam are being promoted as boons to development by promising cheap, clean energy in rapidly industrializing countries.
Despite his reservations about these new dams, Lanza points out that not all hydro power comes with the danger of massive environmental damage and not all projects should be abandoned in favor of solar or wind power. He feels that hydro power can be sustainable, with only limited impact on human and environmental health, if it’s kept to a local scale. Rather than building “huge dam mega-structures,” as he calls them, countries should consider community-based, low-tech and ecologically efficient projects instead. And, the power that’s produced locally should be used locally.
Lanza admits it can be hard to get people to change, and small-scale projects definitely would represent a big change from familiar engineering marvels such as the Hoover Dam. Nevertheless the time for change is here, he argues, because the old ways are not sustainable in the long term. “With the right approach, we could witness a sustainable use of water power to produce a low-impact local energy source,” he says. “Water just needs a chance to recover. If you don’t push it too far, it can restore itself using natural processes.”
Janet Lathrop, University of Massachusetts Amherst Office of News and Information, December 28, 2009
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