Amazon EcoVistas to guide sustainable dam siting

Researchers in the US have published a study describing Amazon EcoVistas, a new computational tool for guiding sustainable dams to protect ecosystem services.

Amazon EcoVistas
The recently built Belo Monte mega dam in the Amazon lowlands of Brazil. Image credit: runo Batista/VPR

The rapid expansion of the Amazon hydroelectric dam poses a serious threat to Earth’s largest and most biodiverse river basin. There are 158 dams in the Amazon River basin, with a further 351 proposed. These projects are typically assessed individually with little coordinated planning.

Published in Sciencethe new study provides the first computational approach for evaluating basin-level tradeoffs between hydropower and ecosystem services.

Co-author Stephen Hamilton, an ecosystem ecologist at Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies explained: “Continuation of hydropower development in the Amazon is inevitable. So how can that be done in a way that optimizes energy output at the lowest environmental cost?

“The answer lies in strategically selecting projects, taking into account multiple environmental criteria that have hitherto been too difficult to consider simultaneously when planning large numbers of potential projects.”

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Hamilton, with an interdisciplinary team of environmental and computer experts, developed ‘Amazon EcoVistas’, a new framework to collectively analyze proposed dam projects, both for their energy generation and for their impact on the environment.

They analyzed five environmental criteria: river flow, river connectivity, sediment transport, fish biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. Their tool uses artificial intelligence and high-performance computing to identify hydroelectric vapor portfolios that meet energy production targets with the latest environmental damage.

“Our tool allows us to evaluate hydroelectric projects for their collective impact on nature and people at the scale of the entire river basin – a rare, but critical approach, as the Amazon River and its tributaries cross multiple countries with different topography flows,” said co-author Rafael Almeida, a former visiting lecturer at Cary and current assistant professor at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.

The tool can also exclude particularly malicious projects. Almeida added that fragmentation of river systems, blocking of fish migrations, sediment containment and methane emissions are all exacerbated by the lack of planning for the entire river basin.

Almeida noted that the environmental criteria evaluated also have social values. Dams block sediments needed to fertilize agricultural crops growing in the food plain, fishing degradation threatens important sources of food and income, and river fragmentation disrupts the transport of people and goods.

By running the ‘Amazon EcoVistas’ algorithm on the 158 existing and 351 proposed dams, scenarios were created based on all possible combinations of these projects. This enabled it to determine the ‘Pareto optimal boundary’ – or a combination of hydropower projects that minimizes negative environmental impacts for a given level of total hydropower production.

This process is extremely computationally intensive, researchers say; among the 509 total projects, there are 2509 (or ~10153) possible combinations – with six dimensions (energy output + the five environmental criteria) evaluated for each.

By identifying opportunities for more sustainable hydropower development, the team believes Amazon EcoVistas could be useful to energy planners, decision-makers and researchers working to implement strategic dam planning across the entire river basin. It could also help evaluate dam removal priorities in regions with aging dams such as North America and Europe.

Abhishek Maheswari
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