Hi Reddit. Dr Barnaby Dye, Dr Tomasz Janus, Dr Gloria Salmoral and Mr Mohammed Basheer from The University of Manchester here!

EDIT: This AMA is now closed. Thank you for all of your questions!

We are part of the FutureDAMS team.

We are working on the interdisciplinary Design and Assessment of Mega Systems project. FutureDAMS is focusing on the sustainable development of energy, water, food and environment systems to align with the Paris Agreement, the international treaty on climate change. Our team specialise in the planning and politics of water and energy infrastructure, including dams.

The project aims to co-develop an approach and toolset to help design and plan better human interventions in complex human-engineered natural resource systems, with partners in Myanmar, the Volta basin (West Africa) and the Nile basin. Dams and systems of dams are conceptualised and assessed as water-energy-food-ecology system interventions that must deliver economic, social and environmental benefits and resilience under a range of plausible futures.

Inter- and cross-disciplinary research assessments will identify what has worked well historically and what needs improvement. A new framework for dam system decision-making will seek to enable the effective negotiated design of complex systems. FutureDAMS is co-develping a state-of-the art online integrated assessment modelling toolset for assessing and optimisng system designs. Factors to be explored include alternative operating regimes, locations and sizes of new infrastructure, trade-offs and synergies between alternatives and links with wider regional energy, food and economic production, and ecological, political and social systems. An online analytical and training toolbox will allow collaborative working between diverse groups such as local and regional stakeholder and sectoral groups, investors, planners, consultants and academics.

Find more information here: http://www.futuredams.org/research/

Please do ask us any questions!

Comments: 79 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

APupNamedScooby-Doo13 karma

What made y’all want to go into this field?

UniOfManchester15 karma

Water could potentially be the most undervalued resource in the world. It is scarce, it is required to sustain all life on Earth, and it has enormous potential to generate electrical energy. Yet, we have never seen the sorf of financial interest in water resources that, e.g. oil and gas industry has seen since its inception. Because of that, there's still lots to be done in water resources engineering, including hydropower and all we do has a huge potential social, economic and environmental impacts.

UniOfManchester8 karma

For me, it was seeing the marked increase in dams from the mid-2000s and wanting to know why they were being built and what, if anything, had changed in their planning and construction

longview130829 karma

I have a question for Mohammed. I note one of your publications assessed the impacts of a Sudanese dam project. Could you tell us a little about what the main outcomes were from your research paper and how that may influence decisions made here in the UK but also future international projects? I sound very UK-centered but I'm rather interested in ensuring dam projects worldwide are properly balanced.

UniOfManchester4 karma

Mohammed here. Yes, I have done quite a bit of work on Sudan and East Africa. I particularly looked into how the dams on the Nile could be operated to maximize the benefits and minimize the adverse impacts while reducing water losses through reservoir evaporation. While the Nile's hydro-politics is quite different from that of the UK, I think we could take from my previous work is that the way dams are operated influences the portfolio of costs and benefits. Optimizing dam operation can bring substantial benefits.

abstlouis964 karma

Three parter.

  1. What would it take for India and Pakistan to come to an agreement over Kashmir? Is there anyway they can fairly split up the water in the region?

  2. What’s a country that’s currently planning to build a dam that could seriously impede water levels to neighboring countries in a situation akin to the one Ethiopia has with Sudan and Egypt?

  3. How has the pandemic affected your abilities to work on the project?

UniOfManchester6 karma

(Barnaby) Big questions! 1. this is clearly a deeply political question to which there is no quick and easy answer. My technical colleagues may advise, but in my experience, a solution can always be found, but it is fundamentally a political choice- how much do you trust the other? what deal can both sides accept? 2. I don't think the GERD will actually do this, but similar upstream versus downstream tensions are seen all around the world. On the Ganges and Brahmaputra for Bangladesh, on the Mekong and other dams in South East Asia that pass through China first, on the Turkish-Iraqi Tigris and Euphrates. Perhaps the most catastrophic are the US' Colorado river dams that have actually cut off water to Mexico and drained a once-rich delta rainforest region into a desert. 3. We are grounded and following the rules like everyone else! So not much fieldwork. But we have teams around the world and when regulations have allowed, they have continued work in their countries (e.g. India and Ghana)

UniOfManchester5 karma

I can only answer point 3. Our technical work during the pandemic has been going very well as our group has a history of working online prior to the pandemic. However, we have had issues sourcing data and engaging with our collaborators abroad due to imposed travel restrictions and lockdowns.

tootieClark3 karma

What about existing dams? Can this framework address this as well or only future dams?

UniOfManchester6 karma

Some of the work that we do is related to reporting existing dams to improve water-energy-food-environment performance, and our framework is capable of that.

UniOfManchester4 karma

Certainly, we are very keen on there being more focus on repurposing existing dams. Dams tend to be very controversial projects with big economic cost and socio-environmental impact. Therefore, working out how to best manage the existing dams is very important. It is also key given the increasing use of dams to stabilise electricity grids as more renewable electricity comes on board (Barnaby)

tonoocala3 karma

What should be done with condos/hotels that have been built far too close to the beaches/shores?

UniOfManchester5 karma

That is slightly beyond the project's remit. Instinctively I would say it is a political decision. Does a society want to protect them enough to spend the money required?

UniOfManchester4 karma

The answer to this question will most likely be different for each urbanized area but every construction project in such a environmentally sensitive area should be preceded with proper environmental impact assessment study.

Shylo_Slick3 karma

You mention your model includes economic, social and environmental factors. Do you have regional cultural specialists, historians and/or political scientists on your team to factor in the weight of local, national and international politics on the potential construction and development (I'm thinking the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam)? While intangible, politics can carry enough weight where compromise may have to be made across other factors to make an otherwise-ideal project feasible.

UniOfManchester3 karma

We do indeed have a stream of work on the politics of dams that analyses their history and addresses the questions you raise. http://www.futuredams.org/research-themes/political-science-and-governance/

liljonnyfrostbite3 karma

What do you feel is the biggest downside to Dams?

UniOfManchester4 karma

(Barnaby) This is very context dependent. You could say anything from the huge financial cost of building bespoke infrastructure, to the enormous effect of displacing people (there is a lot of work to suggest the negative impacts of this can last generations if done badly), to the loss of habitat, to the carbon emissions when built in tropical locations.

There are of course advantages - water, irrigation, electricity etc. which is why people build them, but too often the negatives have been underplayed and not factored into decision making

abstlouis963 karma

Another three parter

  1. ⁠What’s the most exciting thing you learned in your research?

  2. ⁠How long will this project last and what will you do when it’s over?

  3. ⁠Will most emerging countries be able to fund their own dam projects and if not where will most of them get their money from?

UniOfManchester3 karma

I can answer point 1 and point 2 for you since point 3 is outside the remit of my expertise. My background is not in water resources but in most things water-related from a numerical computation standpoint. The one thing I found quite interesting since I joined this research team is that optimization can be categorized as a class of a mathematical model, not just as a tool to get your calibration/optimization done, which I always thought before. In water resources, we use models whose main computational engine is an optimizer that allocates water resources based on explicitly defined rules and priorities. It took me a while to understand how it works, having come from a background which everything tends to be modelled as a physical system following mechanistic principles.

I think the project officially finishes in about a year but we will keep working on follow-up projects and keeping the cooperation with our partners going. There's still lots to be done, in terms of technical development as well as in social sciences and in legislation.

UniOfManchester3 karma

(Barnaby) 1. I have most enjoyed working on Ghana two huge power crises - going from major shortages to over-abundance within a few years http://www.futuredams.org/the-political-power-controlling-ghanas-electricity-system-and-the-ensuing-crises/. 2. We are due to end this year. I will carry on being a researcher but am waiting to see in what role! 3. This is a fast changing picture as more countries turn to deals with the private sector to fund dams. Also more countries are able to borrow money on the international market- which is new. So increasingly yes. But of course it depends on the size of the dam. At the moment, China is the world's largest dam funder and builder, using various state banks. But India, Turkey and other emerging powers also supports dams alongside the 'traditional' funders of the World Bank and other regional development banks (AFDB/ADB/AIIB). We do not necessarily advocate dams as THE solution though

abstlouis962 karma

What other alternatives are there? Desalination plants?

UniOfManchester3 karma

If you are thinking about drinking water, a whole range from Desalination to recharging underground aquifers, small and large wells If electricity, then of course solar, wind, geothermal, and the non-renewable nuclear plus the fossil fuels of course For irrigation for food, often it is better to go small. Our new research finds large irrigation projects generally fail to deliver http://www.futuredams.org/irrigation-schemes-in-sub-saharan-africa-are-consistently-falling-short-of-their-promises/

Odd_Transportation123 karma

Is the motivation behind this project economical or altruistic?

UniOfManchester5 karma

We are researchers, so we don't have a financial stake. We are purely motivated by working out what is going on in the world and in providing tools and information that policymakers and civil society should find useful. Most of the materials we publish are open access online - have a look at the website http://www.futuredams.org/publications/

TechnicalFuel22 karma

Perhaps a bit off-topic, but I am wondering about each member of the team's favorite movies of all time? Furthermore, what is movie culture like in the areas that your team works in? What kinds of movies are made there? What kinds of movies are consumed there?

UniOfManchester5 karma

(Barnaby) Given I am on the politics stream of the project: DamNation is a good one exploring some of the controversies and there is a great TV series of dam building in the Western USA a highly recommend called Cadillac Desert

UniOfManchester3 karma

Surf's up definitely at the top of my list. And it's not coincidental that water is the main topic (taking the penguins aside.. and the chicken)

UncleSalmonHands1 karma

How do you sleep at night?

UniOfManchester10 karma

horizontally

UniOfManchester6 karma

Who needs sleep!

longview130821 karma

Our waterways are precious. Outside of a national lock-down(!) I and many friends spend time kayaking and canoeing on both whitewater and canals.

We have seen an increase in a number of environment projects which aim to dam rivers with little public consultation or consideration for wildlife (e.g The Conwy). How can you as a team encourage better management of dam projects? How will you take into consideration the needs of the right for the public to access these waterways for outdoor activities?

UniOfManchester3 karma

Rivers provide important environmental and recreational services. Kayaking and canoeing are great examples of recreational services. While dams and other water infrastructures provide essential services such as water and energy, they also could adversely affect other services. That is why our planning approach to rivers considers the different services that rivers provide and try to reach balanced solutions.

UncleSalmonHands2 karma

Many of these countries have an abundance of sunlight and a lack of power distribution infrastructure. Local/regional solar power would make more sense, no?

UniOfManchester3 karma

What I have learned from our colleagues who work in power distribution systems is that renewable energy sources are often very intermittent. Your example of solar is one example of a highly intermittent power source. In order to be able to supply power after sunset or during cloudy conditions we need to build infrastructure for energy storage. It could be batteries or e.g. pumped storage. Such systems are definitely viable for smaller communities but in order to supply larger electrical infrastructure with electrical power, we require less intermittent power generation and hydropower is one of the solutions.

UniOfManchester3 karma

It certainly can do yes, we are not in the business of arguing in favour of dams! Rather we are researching the decision making and technical environmental nature of dams and other infrastructure across the whole water-energy-food-environment system. Dams may be part of that solution, but solar power can also. Hydropower may also play a role in balancing solar's intermittency (Barnaby)

UniOfManchester3 karma

Barnaby here. We are today launching our FutureDAMS guide which outlines a stakeholder decision making approach. The guide's principle is that by bringing people together in a holistic way, we are most likely to get rigorous and balanced choices. My technical colleagues are also building a computer model that allows the user to easily demonstrate trade-offs when building an infrastructure project

UncleSalmonHands1 karma

It’s been known for some time that dams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Is the purpose of the tool to demonstrate a required level consideration in order to justify construction approval?

Who has funded this work?

UniOfManchester3 karma

UKRI - the UK's research councils

UniOfManchester3 karma

The purpose of this work is to create a larger decision-making framework that will allow better planning of the integrated basin-wide operation of existing dams and construction of new dams. Its purpose is not to demonstrate that the required level of consideration for a particular project but to enable making more well-thought and informed decisions where investment should be made, how they should be made, what level of cooperation is required from different stakeholders, how to address any political and economical issues that may arise and so on. This is a very large project with many partners as you can see in our website http://www.futuredams.org/ so the type of work we do, although under the same theme, can be quite different in terms of scope. Some of us focus on large scale planning of water resources on a country and regional levels, some of us carry out research on a particular dam or a number of dams. We are funded by the UK Research and Innovation–Economic and Social Research Council

UniOfManchester3 karma

The FutureDAMS project encompasses many elements, one of which is the technical tool my colleagues from the technical team can say more about. Today we released our FutureDAMS guide which outlines the ideal approach to making a decision about a dam. As a project we are not advocating dams specifically. Rather we are looking at the whole water-energy-food-environment system. We say that one needs to start by thinking about: What are the development needs. Then you need to look at all the investments, policies, infrastructure possibilities to meet those needs. Dams may be a solution or they may not. Dams certainly have very large trade-offs for people, carbon emissions and habitats, both upstream and downstream on the river, so any consideration of them needs to be very carefully made

http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/gdi/publications/workingpapers/futuredams/FutureDAMS_stakeholder%20engagement%20guide.pdf

UniOfManchester3 karma

As my colleagues already said, we work closely with the decision makers and discuss with them different solutions that balance the needs of different stakeholders, i.e. farmers, power engineers, local communities, ecologists, etc. We often employ mathematical models to find optimally balanced solutions. The key is to have the right mix of people on the project that can look at the solution from different angles and to be actively engaged with the local communities so their thoughts and their expertise can be taken on board. It was very often forgotten in the past that people with the deepest understanding of the local environment are the inhabitants, and sophisticated telemetry cannot substitute that knowledge. Dams often have a bad name because too many have brought serious environmental and social impacts but we hope that with the right approach we can avoid making those mistakes again.