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From the Centralized Past to a Resilient Future | Water Energy Food Nexus, Bonn 2011

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Nexus Blog

03 Oct 11

From the Centralized Past to a Resilient Future

Why attempts to ensure water, food and energy security should focus on innovative bottom-up strategies rather than large multipurpose projects

When the World Commission on Dams reviewed the development effectiveness of dams, large multipurpose projects came up with the worst track record in terms of economic, social and environmental performance.

As policy makers grapple for the right answers to climate change, influential voices want to give complex power and irrigation schemes a second lease of life. They are wrong. While we need to integrate water, energy and food security with climate resilience, we don’t need to go back to the old-fashioned multipurpose schemes of the 1960s. And while we need to store water to adapt to a changing climate, such storage can come in other forms than the big, centralized reservoirs of the past.

Large dams and reservoirs are not well-suited to a changing climate for two reasons. First, the arteries of our planet are already suffering from a higher rate of species extinction than any other major ecosystem. Climate change will compound the pressure on vital freshwater resources, and will make projects with large ecological footprints unaffordable. Secondly, big reservoirs cannot respond flexibly to the rapid shifts in streamflows that climate change brings about. Dams that reflect past hydrological patterns may become unsafe as storms intensify, and uneconomic as droughts become more frequent.

Climate change has already begun affecting the world’s rivers and dams. Only last month, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley warned: “The climate is changing, global warming is real and the impact on our hydrology is very severe... Hydropower may not be the sort of exponential source that we considered it to be.” Countries like Tanzania are suffering frequent brownouts because they depend on hydropower projects that are ill-matched with today’s climate. A new paper in the scientific journal, PLoS Biology, found that “particularly for large [water] infrastructure projects, the risks for investors, communities, and ecosystems are extremely high given uncertainties in future hydrological conditions”. It concluded that “climate-infrastructure mismatches may make poor nations even poorer”.

Future development strategies need to move away from technologies that depend on stable hydrological conditions. A recent World Bank report warns that “long-lifespan infrastructure, such as hydropower plants, is generally less adaptable to changes in actual facilities.” “An adaptation response”, the report finds, “may require a policy decision to diversify away from hydropower”. The director of the IMF’s Africa Department has encouraged East African countries to minimize their “very significant dependence on hydropower”. And the authors of the PLoS Biology paper recommend making infrastructure less vulnerable by designing for “multiple potential climate regimes”, building in stages to take changing conditions into account, and integrating ecosystems into project designs.

Luckily, solutions that integrate water, food and energy security with climate resilience exist. They include a wide spectrum of small, decentralized, bottom-up approaches such as local check dams, other water harvesting techniques, mechanic treadle pumps, drip irrigation, and the system of rice intensification. Combining traditional knowledge and innovative techniques, these approaches rely on the initiatives of small farmers, use water efficiently, cost less than large dams, enhance the food security of the poor, and typically have minimal environmental impacts. Similarly, a diverse mix of decentralized renewable energy projects – including wind, small hydro, solar and geothermal – will not only strengthen resilience to climate change. It will also be effective at improving energy access for the rural poor and limiting environmental impacts.

Bottom-up solutions have an impressive track record. Small check-dams have revived several rivers and brought prosperity to arid regions in Western India. Simple treadle pumps have lifted millions of farmers out of poverty. The methods of rice intensification, which increase yields and strengthen climate resilience with improved soil biology but reduced inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides, have been validated in 42 countries. Yet these approaches have so far only received a minuscule proportion of the aid, investment and incentives that benefit big dams.

While there is no single silver bullet, proper legal, scientific and financial support could scale up effective bottom-up approaches in the water and energy sectors immensely. Local communities and small farmers deserve legal rights to the land and water that they have relied on for generations. Small farms and rain-fed agriculture deserve research institutes on par with the facilities that were devoted to the green revolution. Decentralized renewable energy options deserve priority if our aid funds are supposed to reduce energy poverty in a sustainable manner. The Bonn conference should give these approaches the credit they deserve, and call for a massive shift of incentives, aid and investment flows from the centralized ways of the past to the resilient approaches of the future.

For more information, please contact the author at peter[at]internationalrivers.org

Dr. Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers, an environmental and human rights organization promoting water and energy solutions for a just and sustainable world. Peter has worked in the field for over 20 years and oversees the organization’s climate, China and South Asia programs.

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As the world transitions to a more sustainable energy future, the right decisions need to be made now to ensure that transition is as smooth as possible. In this speech, Shell Chairman Jorma Ollila discusses the important role that natural gas can play as an affordable, flexible energy source. He calls on policymakers to take a market approach to regulating CO2 to ensure all mitigation measures will be used, starting with those that are lowest cost and fastest to implement. He also talks about research Shell is conducting to understand the complex interrelationship between energy, water and food, and how we can be more efficient in managing them. - Speech given by Jorma Ollila, Chairman, Royal Dutch Shell plc, at the International Energy Agency Governing Board at Ministerial Level, October 18, 2011

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