The Amazon Is Rapidly Being Dammed To Death – Forbes

Power transmission towers at the hydroelectric dam and power station Balbina Dam, built on the Uatuma River in the Amazon rainforest.  AFP PHOTO / EVARISTO SA / AFP / EVARISTO SA

Nobody said solving this climate problem was going to be easy. It should be as simple as switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, but then there are the trade-offs. Going nuclear could do the trick, but… Fukushima.

Building hydroelectric dams presents similar problems, especially when the river to be dammed could leave one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems to be damned, according to a new report in the journal Nature.

Over 140 hydroelectric dams in South America’s Amazon Basin are currently built or under construction and more than 280 more have been proposed. An international team of researchers from ten countries looked at the impacts such infrastructure could have on the flow of nutrients that nourish ecosystems supplying regional food supplies, the most biodiversity on Earth and key ingredients used in  modern medicine

“People say ‘oh another dam, another river.’ It’s not. It’s the Amazon,” said University of Texas-Austin professor Edgardo Latrubesse, who led the study. “We have to put the risks on the table and change the way people are looking at the problem. We are massively destroying our natural resources, and time urges us to find some rational alternatives for preservation and sustainable development.”

He explains that sediments move through the Amazon and its network of tributaries, carrying all sorts of nutrients that “a mosaic of wetlands” rely on further downstream.

The team developed a new metric called the Dam Environmental Vulnerability Index (DEVI) to attempt to quantify an area’s vulnerability to impacts brought on by dams. They found that thousands of bird, fish and tree species that rely on Amazon tributaries the Marañon and Ucayali rivers for nutrients are among those most at risk.

The Tapajós River, where over two dozen dams have recently been constructed and 90 more are on the drawing board, is also highly threatened.

“Think about putting dams in the Mississippi connecting artificial lakes from Memphis to New Orleans,” Latrubesse said. “It would be a scandal because it wouldn’t be sustainable. But this is what is proposed for the Tapajós River.”

He adds that the potential impacts could reach far beyond the Amazon, as sediment levels have been shown to affect rainfall and storm patterns in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps most ironically, there could also be consequences for climate from damming the Amazon.

“If all the planned dams in the basin are constructed, their cumulative effect will trigger a change in sediment flowing into the Atlantic Ocean that may hinder the regional climate.”

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