Cumulative impacts of Brazil’s hydroelectric plants

Damming the Cerrado places a threatened ecosystem at risk of further destruction

Reservoir Furnas as seen from space

Reservoir created by the Furnas Dam in Minas Gerais.

photo by Oton Barros/Flickr

What’s new?

Recent research has quantified the cumulative impact of dams on Brazil’s native savanna ecosystem, the Cerrado. The study created an index of the direct and indirect impacts of constructing hydroelectric facilities on both the rivers being dammed and the surrounding ecosystem.

While often offered as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, dams can have severe environmental impacts ranging from deforestation to obstruction of fish migrations, water pollution, and even direct greenhouse gas emissions resulting from inundation of the surrounding area. This study assessed these effects cumulatively, weighting them more heavily if multiple dams were present in a single watershed.

“For freshwater systems, there’s not the equivalent of a deforestation rate. We don’t have an easy metric of ecosystem damage. So this study was one way of building a method for assessing the unintended consequences of installing a dam in a Cerrado watershed,” says Woodwell Water program director Dr. Marcia Macedo, who collaborated on the paper.

The study puts forward a new Dam Saturation Index (DSI) for the region to approximate the environmental impacts of existing dams. High-saturation watersheds were concentrated in the central and western portions of the biome, and most planned dams are located in sensitive areas of native vegetation with little protection.

Research area
There are a lot of dams already, and many more planned, and it’s only going to get more contentious as climate change continues. Dr. Marcia Macedo, Woodwell Water Program Director

Understanding hydropower in Brazil

Hydropower is big in Brazil—66% of the country gets some or all of their energy from it. Harnessing the power of a river is often the easiest means of electricity production in rural and remote areas. However, large hydroelectric plants are more often used as a means of infrastructural support for extractive industries like mining, rather than to expand access to electricity for rural citizens. Conflicts have already arisen between communities and hydroelectric plants.

Conflict over water usage in the Cerrado is expected to increase as the region continues to get hotter and dryer due to human-caused climate change. Land use change in the biome has accelerated the impacts of climate change, removing the cooling and moisture-retaining effects of natural vegetation.

“There are a lot of dams already, and many more planned, and it’s only going to get more contentious as climate change continues,” Dr. Macedo says. “In the northern and eastern part of the Cerrado, it’s already quite dry. We’re already seeing conflict over water and these reservoirs could just make that worse as upstream locations are able to withhold water from those downstream.”

What this means for the Cerrado

The Cerrado has historically not garnered as much attention, or as many demands for its protection, as the neighboring Amazon rainforest. Less than 10% of the Cerrado is considered protected, and many of those protections are biased toward terrestrial habitats and species. Lack of research into the full impact of hydropower on the watersheds of the Cerrado has left the region vulnerable to unchecked development. Some dams have even been built in areas otherwise strictly protected. Dr. Macedo hopes this study will encourage a different attitude towards freshwater resources.

“There is a question of how we can innovate thinking about protecting freshwater systems, especially under climate change. They’re so important, and there are so many resources—fisheries and clean water and more—that come from these systems,” Dr. Macedo says.

This study focused on large hydroelectric dams, but Dr. Macedo notes that there are many more small dams, built to serve individual farms, that also impact the flow of headwater streams. Ongoing research is focused on understanding the cumulative impacts of dams of all sizes on tropical watersheds.