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.

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.

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.

What’s New?

The Cerrado is a tropical savanna located just southeast of the Amazon rainforest. This biome is a patchwork of forests, savannas, and grasslands, nearly as biodiversity rich as the Amazon yet suffering more due to lax environmental protections. Over 46% of its original land cover has already been cleared for crops or pastures. A recent study assessed the impacts of this conversion on the temperature and water cycling in the region.

The study found that clearing of natural ecosystems resulted in increased land surface temperatures and reduced evapotranspiration — water evaporated to the atmosphere both from soils and as a byproduct of plant growth. Across the biome, land use changes caused a 10% reduction in water being cycled into the atmosphere annually, and almost 1 degree C of warming. Where native savanna vegetation was cleared, temperatures increased by 1.9C and the water recycled to the atmosphere decreased by up to 27%. These changes don’t take into account the additional effects of atmospheric warming from greenhouse gas emissions. 

The study also projects forward three potential future scenarios based on different levels of environmental protection. The worst-case scenario assumes an additional 64 million hectares of both legal and illegal deforestation, which would leave just 20% of native vegetation in the Cerrado by 2050. If illegal deforestation is prevented but legal deforestation still advances, an additional 28 million hectares of deforestation would continue to warm and dry out the region. Only in the most optimistic scenario, with enforced zero deforestation policies and restoration of over 5 million hectares of illegally cleared vegetation, would the impacts of past clearing begin to reverse.

“If we continue down this path of weakening environmental policies, we’re probably heading towards an uncontrolled increase in deforestation,” says Ariane Rodrigues, researcher at the University of Brasilia and lead author on the paper. “As a result, we could reach almost 1 C of temperature increase by 2050 from land use change alone. If we add the estimated temperature increase from global greenhouse gas emissions, we will have a critical situation for food production, biodiversity, water and wildfire risk, affecting areas located way beyond the biome’s limits.” 

Understanding Land Use in the Cerrado

Incentives for large-scale commercial agriculture in the Cerrado date back to the 1970s. Despite its high biodiversity, only 11% of the Cerrado is protected and technological advancements provided favorable conditions for agriculture to expand rapidly. 

The half of the biome that remains unconverted is considered prime agricultural land. The Cerrado alone is responsible for 12% of global soybean production and 10% of global beef exports. Growing demand for these agricultural products is pushing farmers and ranchers to expand into the Matopiba region in the Northeast Cerrado — one of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed native vegetation. 

Hotspots of reduced evapotranspiration and increased temperatures can already be seen in areas of Matopiba with intensifying agricultural activity. This means that farms will rely even more heavily on irrigation to combat drought, a strategy made less viable by the warming and drying caused by agriculture itself.

“That is the driest portion of the Cerrado, where there’s the most climate risk already,” says paper co-author and Woodwell Water program director, Dr. Marcia Macedo. “You can see that in the data — it’s getting hotter, and there’s less evapotranspiration, so we are really intensifying conflicts in areas that are already on the edge.” 

What this Means for Protecting the Cerrado

The results of the paper highlight the urgent need for a paradigm shift that values the additional services the Cerrado provides beyond just crop production. Not only does it house unique ecosystems, but it plays a pivotal role in modulating the climate of the region. In the best-case scenario evaluated by the paper, zero-deforestation and restoration policies could avoid extensive warming and drying and begin compensating for the past transformation of Cerrado landscapes. Continued conversion of natural vegetation will jeopardize both biodiversity and agricultural stability in the Cerrado, as crops struggle to be productive under hotter and drier conditions. 

Already, conflicts over water usage and irrigation are occurring in western Bahía state. As the region warms and dries, competition for a scarce resource will become more common and large-scale agriculture will become much less viable.

“We’re making some risky decisions in terms of land use,” says Dr. Macedo, “We’re losing a lot for short term gains in crop production, often in areas that will struggle to sustain large-scale agriculture as climate changes.”