OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New tool to assess impact of building dams available

07/19/2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new tool to help policy makers better assess the costs and benefits of building dams – the first tool of its kind – could change the way nations decide to develop hydro-electric power.

The Integrative Dam Assessment Modeling tool, or IDAM, uses an interdisciplinary approach to simultaneously evaluate the distribution of biophysical, socio-economic and geopolitical impacts of dams, according to one of the model’s creators, Bryan Tilt, an associate professor of anthropology at Oregon State University.

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. On July 27, researchers at Oregon State University who developed the model will present the tool in Washington, D.C., to a group of policy-makers, government agencies and environmental organizations from the United States, China and Southeast Asia.

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 socioeconomic, geopolitical and biophysical themes.

For instance, factors such as habitat restoration costs can be weighed, along with loss of income to local people and access to clean drinking water.

“When you put up a dam, it affects whole ecosystems and whole communities,” Tilt said. “No other measurement tool can allow for so many variables, and allow the user to weigh what factors they view as most important.”

Tilt said the impetus for this dam modeling project happened in 2000, when the World Commission on Dams called for more equitable and sustainable decision-making with respect to large dams. In 2007, the National Science Foundation funded the research by OSU and its collaborators to develop and test this dam assessment tool.

Numerous studies modeling real dams in China helped the researchers refine and perfect the tool, which they believe will help policy-makers make more informed decisions about building dams.

“The fact is that China and African, Southeast Asian and Latin American countries are building dams at an amazing pace right now,” Tilt said. “There is no denying that they are going to continue to build them for the near future. So how can we help them to do it better, more sustainably, and mitigate any damage as much as possible?”

Desiree Tullos, an associate professor in the Department of Biological & Ecological Engineering at OSU and the project’s lead researcher, along with Aaron Wolf, professor of geosciences at OSU, will be at the meeting in Washington, D.C., along with Tilt.