Improved Planning of Large Dam Operation: Using Decision Support Systems to Optimize Livelihood Benefits, Safeguard Health and Protect the Environment

Published on 5 August 2010

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Start Date: 1 January 2005 | End Date: 31 December 2009


Large dams bring the challenges of sustainable development, and specifically integrated water resources management, to the fore. By storing water, and so increasing options for water management, large dams have brought broad social and economic benefits and have made significant contributions to national and regional development. However, history shows that dams can have profound social and economic repercussions for those, invariably poor, people living close to or downstream from them. Such communities often have limited livelihood options and so are particularly vulnerable to changes in the condition of the natural resources on which they depend. Too often in the past the adverse impacts experienced by these communities have been largely ignored and, as a result, far too many people have had to “pay the price of development”. It is now widely acknowledged that a key goal of any large dam must be to ensure that it provides a development opportunity for all. This includes those communities living close to the dam who may be displaced or whose livelihoods may be disrupted. This requires that dams are planned and operated in a different way to the past, with much greater emphasis on local needs. This in turn requires that environmental and social factors are considered in much greater detail than was typically the case in the past. 

Planning and operating large dams is extremely difficult. Complexity is manifest in uncertainty arising from climate variability and hence river flows, the intricacy of biophysical interactions within riverine ecosystems and, perhaps most significantly, in the number and kind of stakeholders involved. That is, stakeholders with different and often conflicting interests, values or rights; with incompatible forms of knowledge, social norms and attitudes; with unequal power and influence. Hence, decision-making in relation to large dam planning and operation is a far from trivial task. In recent years a large number of Decision Support Systems (DSSs) have been developed to assist decision-makers to improve dam planning and operation. This CPWF project comprised a multi-disciplinary study which investigated the use of DSSs in dam planning and operation and specifically the importance of improved evaluation of environmental and social issues in decision-making processes. Although an original intention of the project was to identify the DSSs most appropriate for the complexity of large dam planning and operation, this proved to be an unrealistic objective. It is impractical because there are a huge number of DSSs and an even greater variety of situations in which they can be used. Consequently, any given DSS will be appropriate to assist decision-making in certain situations but completely inappropriate in others. The DSSs used in this study were selected based on the issues being investigated, the data available and the technical capacity and preferences of those involved. 

This project’s work resulted in key generic recommendations on comprehensive options assessment of dams and their alternatives, social issues encompassing many interlinked social, economic and ecological dimensions, successful implementation of environmental impact assessment recommendations, environmental flows, health impacts, benefit sharing, and transboundary waters.

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