Barriers to agreement: the issue of dam removal

Posted on March 10, 2014

Like proposals for dam-building, those for dam removal can be controversial. Arguments for the removal of existing dams can be made on operational grounds. For example, hydropower dams may become obsolescent and no longer provide electricity, or regular dam maintenance may no longer be economically cost-effective, or dam design may be inadequate to cope with projected increases in discharge as a result of climate change. Dam removal may be also supported on the grounds of predicted improvements in ecosystem health and prospects for threatened species. On the other hand, opponents of dam removal tend to base their arguments on the cultural services provided by dams. This dichotomy in attitudes was highlighted by a study of four contentious dam removal projects in Sweden, based on the analysis of debates in online newspapers. Advocates of dam removal wanted to return rivers to their natural condition. In contrast, in Hallstahammar (southern Sweden) for example, opponents of removal were keen to retain their industrial heritage, including the city’s canals which are fed by dam water, while at Alby (central Sweden), they stressed the fact that the dam pond was the historical centre of the town and served as a popular bathing place. Supporters and opposers of dam removal were also split with respect to their aesthetic preferences, with supporters stressing the attractions of free-flowing water and opposers putting high value on the calm, reflective qualities of dam ponds. Because proponents from the two sides framed the debate in very different ways, stayed within their own frame when advancing their arguments, and didn’t accept the validity of the other frame, there was little room for compromise. The study noted that, as in other environmental debates, advocates of “scientific” positions often assumed that their opponents could be persuaded by providing them with more information (in this case, on dam removal science, flood protection and riparian development). However, such efforts are likely to have only limited success in the face of fundamental differences in the ways that ecosystem services are valued.

Reference: Jorgensen, D. & Renofalt, B.M. 2013. Damned if you do, dammed if you don’t: debates on dam removal in the Swedish media. Ecology and Society 18(1), 18.