OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Scientists develop groundbreaking new model for impacts of dams

06/24/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists have developed a new system to help policy makers better assess the costs and benefits of building dams – the first system of its kind to use an interdisciplinary approach to simultaneously evaluate the distribution of biophysical, socio-economic and geopolitical impacts of dams, according to one of the study’s co-authors.

“We as scientists tend to look at things through our own tiny little drinking straw, studying our one narrow field,” said Bryan Tilt, an assistant professor of anthropology at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors. “When it comes to dams, we felt a broader perspective was needed. Because when you put up a dam, it affects whole ecosystems and whole communities.”

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of a special issue on dams featured in the summer edition of the Journal of Environmental Management. The entire special issue was edited by Tilt and Desiree Tullos, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological & Ecological Engineering at OSU. Tullos is another co-author on the study and the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant.

Each scientist was brought in for their piece of the dam puzzle. Lead author Philip H. Brown of Colby College is an economist who studies microeconomic issues in economic development. Tullos is an environmental engineer with expertise in ecohydraulics and hydraulic modeling. Tilt is an environmental anthropologist who studies the social and environmental impacts of rural development, with a special focus on China, where dam construction far outpaces any other nation. Darrin Magee of Hobart and William Smith Colleges is a geographer specializing in energy and water issues in China. And OSU’s Aaron Wolf studies water resources policy and conflict resolution.

The scientists have developed what they call an Integrative Dam Assessment Modeling tool, or IDAM. The model was designed as a decision-support tool that policy makers can use to understand holistically the impacts, costs and benefits of building a dam in any area.

“It can be used anywhere, with some modifications,” Tilt said, adding that the researchers have used the tool to study the impact of dams in China and are continuing that research through a new National Science Foundation grant this summer.

The dam assessment tool measures the costs associated with a proposed dam development project and also measures the possible benefits. Each of the diagrams in the tool consists of 27 individual indicators of the effects of dam construction, divided into socio-economic, geopolitical and biophysical themes.

In the published study, the authors illustrated the use of the IDAM tool by testing it on two hypothetical dams with different design characteristics.

This summer the research team travels to China again where it will put the IDAM tool into practice on real dams. Tilt said they will collect data on two rivers: one that has several dams on it already (the Upper Mekong River) and one that is slated for dam development in the near future (the Nu River, also called the Salween).