Solar, Wind Can Achieve Renewable Targets Without Damming the World’s Rivers: WWF Study

Only about 37% of the world’s longest rivers are free-flowing, notes the study

May 16, 2019


A study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its partners demonstrates how with thousands of hydropower dams planned across the world, the ongoing renewable energy revolution can solve the world’s climate and energy challenge without sacrificing its remaining free-flowing rivers.

While portraying a grim picture of degradation, the new study has also offered a method of tracking the status of these free-flowing rivers over time.

The study has also found out that as countries increasingly turn towards hydropower as renewable energy, there is an adverse impact on riverine health, which are also vulnerable to climate change.

The impact is alarming considering that there are 60,000 large hydropower dams (LHPs) worldwide and another 3,700 either under construction or in the pipeline, according to the WWF release.

Mercom recently reported on the inclusion of LHPs in the renewable energy mix of India. In another article, Mercom questioned if this is a good move considering the flak such projects have drawn globally.

The report, which analyzed about 409,245 kilometers of rivers in India, has found that due to sustained pressure of fragmentation and loss of river connectivity, rivers are finding it difficult to flow freely hence it is affecting their health, the ecosystem, and the biodiversity the river basin has.

The report has categorized the length of rivers as short rivers (10-100km), medium length rivers (100-500 km), long rivers (500-1000 km), and very long (greater than 1,000 km). Unfortunately, in India, the free-flowing rivers fall in the short category (96%), the WWF release states.

The report by the scientific journal has stated that Just over one-third (37%) of the world’s 246 longest rivers remain free-flowing,  with rampant construction of dams and reservoirs drastically reducing the diverse benefits that healthy rivers provide to people and nature across the globe.

A team of 34 international researchers from McGill University, WWF, and other institutions assessed the connectivity status of 12 million kilometers (7.5 million miles) of rivers worldwide, providing the first-ever global assessment of the location and extent of the planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers.

“The world’s rivers form an intricate network with vital links to land, groundwater, and the atmosphere,’’ said lead author Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography. ‘’Free-flowing rivers are important for humans and the environment alike, yet economic development around the world is making them increasingly rare. Dams and reservoirs are the leading contributors to connectivity loss in global rivers. They are often planned and built at the individual project level, making it difficult to assess their real impacts across entire basin or region” Grill added.

“This global study has given the much-required insight and methodology to identify free-flowing rivers in our country and to work with diverse stakeholders for developing a roadmap for the protection of such intact river systems in India. The study highlights the relevance of free-flowing rivers and the potential they hold to increase the resilience of aquatic and riparian ecosystems for the benefit of millions of people,” added Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO, WWF – India.

Meanwhile, as countries around the world shift to low-carbon economies, hydropower planning and development is accelerating, adding urgency to the need to develop energy systems that minimize overall environmental and social impact.

“Renewable energy is like a recipe – you have to find the right mix of ingredients to have both a sustainable energy grid and a thriving natural world,” said Thieme, a researcher in the group. “While hydropower inevitably has a role to play in the renewable energy landscape, well-planned wind and solar energy can be more viable options for rivers and the communities, cities, and biodiversity that rely on them.”

Climate change is a growing threat to river health worldwide, both from direct impacts and as countries increasingly turn to hydropower as a renewable energy option. But thanks to the declining costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies –  as well as significant advances in energy efficiency and grid management – it is now possible for the world to expand electricity generation to provide power to the billion people who currently lack access, while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and preserving tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometers of free-flowing rivers.

Solar power generation in India has increased substantially over the past few years. According to the latest data, solar power accounted for over 11.4 BUs of electricity produced in Q1 2019. This marks a growth of 34% year-over-year (YoY) from the 8.5 BUs generated in the Q1 2018.