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Alternatives to Dams

When a proposal to build a new dam is put forward two types of studies are usually carried out:

  • Firstly, the cost/benefit ratio of the dam project is calculated, ie does the value of the benefits that will be obtained by building the dam exceed the cost of building the dam? This study is intended to determine if the building of the dam is economically justified.
  • Secondly, the effect of the new dam on the environment is assessed in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

One question usually asked is; "Is a new dam really needed or could the objectives of the dam project be achieved in some way other than by building a new dam?" The answer to this question depends on what the objectives of the dam project are, eg if the dam is to be built to meet the additional demand for water supply to a growing city it might be possible to meet this demand by obtaining water from another source, eg groundwater pumped from underground aquifers, or the demand for water might be reduced by, for instance, increasing the cost of water to the consumer. In either case, it might be decided that the construction of a new dam is not required after all.

In the case of a dam which is to be built to generate electricity it might be similarly possible to reduce demand by increasing cost or the electricity might be able to be generated in some other way, eg solar, coal fired or nuclear power stations. Obviously many factors, both economic and environmental, have to be considered before it can be decided, for example, whether a new dam or a new coal fired power station is more desirable.

Dams do create some adverse environmental impacts and some high profile, large dam projects in the past are now thought by some to have caused unacceptable environmental damage. Others would say that the environmental problems associated with dams can be successfully managed in the dam design process and, provided that this is done, dams can be less damaging to the environment than coal fired or nuclear power stations.

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