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Small hydropower a big global issue overlooked by science and policy

A small hydropower dam on the Kokra River, Slovenia. Almost 83,000 small dams were recorded as being in operation or under construction in 150 countries by the study. That number could triple, the scientists warn, if all potential capacity is developed. Photo by Mihael Grmek/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 In January, Brazil made a surprise announcement, ending its mega-dam building policy after years of pushing ahead with controversial projects such as the Belo Monte dam (the world’s third largest), and the Tapajós Complex. But although that comes as welcome news to environmentalists, it is overshadowed by some bad news: a five-fold increase in so-called small hydropower dams in Brazil over the last 20 years, as identified by a new study. The escalating impacts of these numerous small dams should not be overlooked, warn scientists. The research, led by Thiago Couto of the University of Washington, examined the scale and expansion of small hydropower dams worldwide. In total, 82,891 smaller dams were recorded in operation or under construction in 150 countries ­­– that’s 11 small dams for each large dam globally. This number could triple, according to the new study, if all potential capacity is developed, with a further 10,569 small dams already in the planning stages. China leads the way, with over 47,000 small dams currently in operation. Not only was the quantity and widespread distribution of small dams unexpected, but it was also “a big surprise that the environmental policies and the existing body of scientific knowledge are insufficient…

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