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Point of view: Water will not tolerate resistance

Oct 04, 2021
Extreme weather conditions are also increasingly affecting the Alps. The climate crisis is driving this development. Can more and more dams, barriers or power stations solve the problem and at the same time satisfy the growing hunger for energy? We must work with the power of water rather than against it, says Kaspar Schuler, CIPRA’s Executive Director and co-author of CIPRA’s new position paper on hydropower.
Image caption:
Kaspar Schuler is Executive Director at CIPRA International. (c) Darko Todorovic

For many people, the word “hydropower” has taken on a threatening tone this summer. Tranquil streams swelled into raging floods as a result of heavy rainfall, forcing their way with such elemental force that well-intentioned protective measures such as river barriers proved useless. Villages and small towns had to learn this painfully and even fatally during flood disasters in the Alps and beyond. The power of water can not only be used to produce electricity: it can also be devastating.

Weren’t at least we, the inhabitants of the Alps, forearmed against the destructive power of water? We have known of these elemental forces for centuries. Unfortunately, we must not be lulled into a false sense of security. German climate researchers warned in July: “We have not yet experienced the real extreme weather of the global warming that we have already caused. Our individual experiences of the consequences of global warming lag behind the real threat by years or even decades. We are travelling into the future as if flying blind, supported only by calculated climate scenarios”.

We could continue to do what used to be effective. We could build up even more banks and streams with huge amounts of concrete so as to protect buildings and infrastructure. We could install even more hydroelectric power plants in the mountains to provide electricity. Depending on how they are managed and how full they are at any given time, reservoirs could help regulate water in the event of a disaster. However, they would also deprive the main valleys and more remote areas – mostly in other countries – of water. The consequences would be fatal, because water is a key elixir of life. Without watercourses that rise and fall in their natural rhythm, or river meadows and bogs rich in species, there would be no biodiversity – and soon too little groundwater and drinking water for us humans. So we need to rethink. We need to restore some of the old natural spaces to the river courses in the valleys by widening them so that they slow down during floods, lose their destructive power and deposit the bedload they carry. In some places it will even be necessary to retreat, for example moving out of buildings in danger zones.

As a contribution to the discussion, CIPRA has drawn up a position paper on the use of hydropower in the Alpine region. Its five catchy guiding principles provide authorities and electricity companies with a guideline for their actions. It also provides a wide range of background information and sources for finding well-founded answers to the central question: given today’s complexities, how much additional hydropower use is environmentally sound and ecologically sustainable? This is something that we in the Alpine region must address more than ever, across borders and in a cooperative manner. We cannot fight the power of water, but we can use it with all due respect and must come to terms with it in new ways.

 

Sources and further information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_European_floods (en), https://info-de.scientists4future.org/the-july-2021-floods-in-germany-and-the-climate-crisis/ (en)

 

To the position paper on hydropower.