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Cumulative biophysical impact of small and large hydropower development in Nu River, China

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Support for low-carbon energy and opposition to new large dams encourages global development of small hydropower facilities. This support is manifested in national and international energy and development policies designed to incentivize growth in the small hydropower sector while curtailing large dam construction. However, the preference of small to large dams assumes, without justification, that small hydropower dams entail fewer and less severe environmental and social externalities than large hydropower dams. With the objective to evaluate the validity of this assumption, we investigate cumulative biophysical effects of small (<50 MW) and large hydropower dams in China’s Nu River basin, and compare effects normalized per megawatt of power produced. Results reveal that biophysical impacts of small hydropower may exceed those of large hydropower, particularly with regard to habitat and hydrologic change. These results indicate that more comprehensive standards for impact assessment and governance of small hydropower projects may be necessary to encourage low-impact energy development.
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Cumulative biophysical impact of small and large hydropower
development in Nu River, China
Kelly M. Kibler
1
and Desiree D. Tullos
2
Received 19 July 2012; revised 1 April 2013; accepted 8 April 2013; published 3 June 2013.
[1] Support for low-carbon energy and opposition to new large dams encourages global
development of small hydropower facilities. This support is manifested in national and
international energy and development policies designed to incentivize growth in the small
hydropower sector while curtailing large dam construction. However, the preference of
small to large dams assumes, without justification, that small hydropower dams entail fewer
and less severe environmental and social externalities than large hydropower dams. With
the objective to evaluate the validity of this assumption, we investigate cumulative
biophysical effects of small (<50 MW) and large hydropower dams in China’s Nu River
basin, and compare effects normalized per megawatt of power produced. Results reveal that
biophysical impacts of small hydropower may exceed those of large hydropower,
particularly with regard to habitat and hydrologic change. These results indicate that more
comprehensive standards for impact assessment and governance of small hydropower
projects may be necessary to encourage low-impact energy development.
Citation: Kibler, K. M., and D. D. Tullos (2013), Cumulative biophysical impact of small and large hydropower development in Nu
River, China, Water Resour. Res.,49, 3104–3118, doi:10.1002/wrcr.20243.
1. Introduction
[2] The hydropower sector currently comprises 80% of
global capacity for renewable energy generation and is con-
sidered a conduit between dependence on fossil-based
energy sources and alternative energy futures [Frey and
Linke, 2002; Renewable Energy Policy Network for the
21st Century (REN21), 2010]. However, as dam construc-
tion often encompasses undesirable social, environmental,
and political externalities [McCully, 1996 ; World Commis-
sion on Dams, 2000; Postel and Richter, 2003], develop-
ment of new large dams can be politically untenable. The
current upsurge in construction of smaller, geographically
distributed hydrodevelopment schemes [Painuly, 2001]
may be, in part, a result of increasing acknowledgement of
and aversion to impacts of large dams.
[3] A growing number of nations have recently high-
lighted development of small hydropower resources in
national energy policies [China: Li et al., 2009 ; Zhou et al.,
2009; Nepal: Agrawala et al., 2003; India: Dudhani et al.,
2006; Purohit, 2008; Turkey : Yuksel, 2007 ; Latin America
and Caribbean: Benstead et al., 1999]. New national-level
regulations, as well as international energy and development
policies, such as the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development
Mechanism (CDM), allow streamlined permitting processes
for new hydropower facilities falling below thresholds in in-
stalled capacity, as well as other incentives designed to en-
courage small hydropower development in lieu of large
dams [REN21, 2010; UNFCCC and CCNUCC, 2006a].
These policies are established with the intent of fostering
renewable energy development, allowing realization of low-
carbon energy potential in developing areas with growing
demands for electricity, while avoiding the undesirable
social and environmental consequences associated with
large dams.
[4] Such decisions and development strategies crafted at the
national and international level have immense potential to
shape both energy and hydroecologic landscapes. However,
although the literature is replete with research and case studies
documenting unintended consequences of large dams [Abell,
2002; Cernea, 1999; Giordano et al., 2005; Lerer and
Scudder, 1999; Petts, 1984; Poff et al., 1997; Rosenburg
et al., 2000; Williams and Wolman, 1984], similar investi-
gations of small hydropower effects are scarce [see Gleick,
1992]. The lack of analogous research addressing the effects
of small hydropower limits opportunity to recognize poten-
tial impacts and mitigate negative consequences. Adequate
consideration of cumulative effects is a particularly salient
issue related to small hydropower impact assessment, yet
this topic has received little attention of researchers or water
resources managers [see Irving and Bain, 1993] and is
rarely considered with sufficient rigor in impact evaluations.
Given the potential for effects to accumulate under current
policies encouraging development of many small facilities
over fewer large facilities, the lack of comprehensive analy-
sis regarding cumulative impact of small hydropower is a
significant research gap with important policy implications.
1
Department of Water Resources Engineering, Oregon State University,
Corvallis, Oregon, USA.
2
Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, Oregon State
University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA.
Corresponding author: K. M. Kibler, International Centre for Water
Hazard & Risk Management under the auspices of UNESCO, Public
Works Research Institute, 1-6 Minamihara, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305-8516,
Japan. (kibler55@pwri.go.jp)
©2013. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.
0043-1397/13/10.1002/wrcr.20243
3104
WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH, VOL. 49, 3104–3118, doi :10.1002/wrcr.20243, 2013
[5] We thus present an investigation of cumulative bio-
physical effects associated with large and small hydro-
power dams built or proposed on the mainstem and
tributaries of China’s Nu River in Nujiang Prefecture,
Yunnan Province (Figure 1). We define large and small
hydropower dams in this work according to Chinese law,
which states that hydropower dams exceeding 50 MW in-
stalled capacity are large, while those falling below 50 MW
installed capacity are small. Our objectives in evaluating
the relative cumulative impacts of small and large hydro-
power are to (a) augment the sparse body of evidence that
currently documents effects of small hydropower, (b) sup-
port discourse and policies regarding renewable energy de-
velopment and mitigation of environmental effects, and (c)
to present new data on one of the world’s last undammed,
and arguably least-studied, rivers.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Site: Nujiang Prefecture
[6] Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture (hereafter,
Nujiang Prefecture) is located in Northwest Yunnan Prov-
ince, China, south of the Yunnan-Tibet provincial border
and east of the international border between China and
Myanmar (Figure 1). From sources on the Qinghai-Tibet
Plateau, the Salween River flows south through Nujiang
Prefecture before entering Myanmar. China, Myanmar, and
Thailand share portions of the international Salween River
basin. However, the headwaters of the Salween River are
located in China, where it is known by its Chinese name,
the Nu River. Because our analysis focuses on the reach of
the Salween River within China’s borders, herein we refer
to the study area as the Nu River, except in places (e.g.,
analysis of affected conservation lands) where analysis
extends across international borders.
[7] The upper reaches of the Nu River flow through an
orogenic belt, downcutting through steep gorges, the course
entrenched by constrained, high-relief valleys [Owen,
2006]. Intercontinental deformation associated with sub-
duction and collision is manifested through several large,
active strike-slip fault systems extending from the north-
west to southeast through Yunnan Province, which trigger
regular seismic events [He and Tsukuda, 2003 ; Allen et al.,
1991; Zhou et al., 1997]. River flows in Nujiang Prefecture
generate primarily through rainfall-runoff processes, with
two distinct seasonal pulses of rainfall driving periods of
high river flows. The first rains in Nujiang Prefecture occur
each year between February and May and historically
deliver between 40% and 50% of the yearly precipitation
[Institute of Water Resources (IWR), 2006a]. A second sys-
tem of precipitation, driven by the East Asian monsoon,
persists from June to October and delivers a further 40% to
50% of annual precipitation. Snow and glacial melt contrib-
ute runoff to the Nu River mainstem during summer
months, with some portions of the upper Nu River basin in
Tibet contributing over 2000 mm of meltwater [Chinese
Academy of Sciences, 1990]. Conversely, snowmelt is a rel-
atively inconsequential source of runoff in tributaries to the
Nu River in Nujiang Prefecture [Yunnan Bureau of Hydrol-
ogy and Water Resources (YBHWR), 2005].
[8] Nujiang Prefecture lies within a designated hotspot
of global biodiversity [Zhou and Chen, 2005; United
Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), 2002]. A high proportion of endemic species
characterize the vastly diverse organisms of Northwest
Yunnan [Xu and Wilkes, 2003], and many species are pro-
tected at the provincial or national level or listed on the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Red List of Threatened Species [IUCN, 2001]. For exam-
ple, of 48 species of fish known to inhabit the Nu River in
Yunnan Province, 32 are endemic and several are protected
[Chu and Chen, 1989, 1990]. In addition to possessing rich
biodiversity, Nujiang Prefecture is also one of the most eth-
nically diverse regions of China, with ethnic minorities
comprising 92% of the prefectural population [Magee,
2006]. The three counties of Nujiang Prefecture (Gong-
shan, Fugong, and Lushui) are also listed amongst the most
poverty-stricken counties of China and continue to face sig-
nificant challenges to economic development.
2.2. Study Design and Data Procurement
[9] Two distinct models of hydropower, large and small,
are developing side by side in Nujiang Prefecture, driven
by China’s state-mandated development policies of ‘‘West-
ern Development’’ and ‘‘Send Western Energy East.’’ We
Figure 1. Nujiang Prefecture. Study area and samples of
small and large dams investigated.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3105
distinguish large and small hydropower dams in this study
based on the Chinese regulatory threshold of 50 MW,
whereby stations with installed capacity not exceeding 50
MW classify as small hydropower [Ministry of Water
Resources (MWR), 2002]. We note that, internationally, the
definition of small hydropower varies considerably across
governments and agencies and that China’s definition of
small hydropower is highly inclusive relative to other
standards. For example, small hydropower within the
United States is defined as not exceeding 25 MW, whereas
many European countries specify standards of less than 10
MW. On the Nu River, a cascade of up to 13 large hydro-
power dams has been proposed for the mainstem in Tibet
and Yunnan Province, with eight projects slated to fall
within Nujiang Prefecture. Small hydropower dams are al-
ready developed on tributaries throughout the Nu River ba-
sin. Although the number of small hydropower dams in
operation or planned for tributaries to the Nu River is unre-
ported, our field surveys indicate that nearly 100 small
dams currently exist within Nujiang Prefecture alone.
[10] From the population of hydropower dams proposed or
constructed on the mainstem and tributaries to the Nu River
in Nujiang Prefecture, we investigate samples of four large
dams (totaling 10,400 MW installed capacity) and 31 small
dams (totaling 417 MW installed capacity) (Table 1). The
collective installed capacities of large and small hydropower
stations investigated in this study indicate potential for annual
certified emissions reductions of 45 million and 1.5 million
metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO
2
), respectively [United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC/CCNUCC), 2006b].
[11] In this investigation, we define potential for bio-
physical change according to a suite of metrics indicating
absolute environmental impact (Table 2). We then normal-
ize cumulative impacts of small and large dams by installed
capacity to compare the cumulative impact of 1 MW of
power generated by small and large dams. Impact evalua-
tion in China’s Nu River basin is challenging, primarily
because access to and availability of robust and accurate in-
formation is extremely limited. Regarding data access, in-
formation pertaining to Nujiang Prefecture dams is closely
guarded by the central government due to the sensitivity of
the region, which is home to large proportions of Chinese
ethnic minorities and potentially valuable natural resources.
In addition, proposals to construct dams on the Nu River
mainstem are highly controversial, both domestically and
internationally. As a result, access to hydrologic, hydraulic,
and geomorphic data related to the international Nu River
(e.g., discharge, stage, and sediment transport), as well as
plans for dam development and operations, is prohibited
under the Chinese State Secrets Act. Regarding data avail-
ability, smaller catchments in Nujiang Prefecture, where
Table 1. Design Characteristics of Large and Small Dams
Dam Name
Project
County River Name
Installed
Capacity (MW)
Dam
Height (m)
Project
Head (m)
River
Gradient (mm
1
)
Mean
Flow (m
3
s
1
)
Maji Fugong Nu River 4200 300.0 300.0 0.001 1270.0
Lumadeng Fugong Nu River 2000 165.0 165.0 0.006 1330.0
Yabiluo Lushui Nu River 1800 133.0 133.0 0.009 1430.0
Lushui Lushui Nu River 2400 175.0 175.0 0.005 1500.0
Pula Gongshan Pula River 24.8 19.3 390.2 0.120 3.5
Qiqiluo Gongshan Qiluo River 20.0 18.7 80.0 0.036 13.1
Galabo Gongshan Galabo River 14.0 17.8 140.1 0.111 6.3
Mujiajia Fugong Mujiajia River 18.9 6.0 380.0 0.098 2.1
Mujiajia trib. 2 Fugong Mujiajia tributary NA
a
5.0 NA 0.182 0.8
Mujiajia trib. 3 Fugong Mujiajia tributary NA 6.0 NA 0.045 0.9
Mujiajia Erji Fugong Mujiajia River 10.0 10.0 224.0 0.143 1.9
Mukeji Fugong Mukeji River 31.5 10.5 640.0 0.084 3.4
Lishiluo Fugong Lishiluo River 6.4 14.5 338.0 0.108 1.9
Yamu Fugong Yamu River 49.0 8.7 367.0 0.071 3.9
Yamu trib. Fugong Yamu tributary NA 8.7 NA 0.093 3.4
Alu Fugong Alu River 12.6 5.5 648.9 0.233 1.2
Zhali Fugong Zhali River 2.6 4.0 155.3 0.086 1.7
Ganbu Fugong Ganbu River 3.8 4.0 316.0 0.118 1.5
Guquan Fugong Guquan River 22.0 11.0 580.0 0.121 1.7
Guquan trib. Fugong Wuke River NA 10.0 NA 0.139 1.4
Zema Fugong Zema River 15.0 4.0 500.0 0.064 2.6
Zema trib. Fugong Zema tributary NA 3.0 NA 0.342 0.8
Pushi Fugong Pushi River 10.0 5.0 376.0 0.124 2.1
Zilijia Fugong Zilijia River 6.4 7.0 534.0 0.122 1.5
Zileng Fugong Zileng River 24.0 7.0 702.2 0.166 1.8
Zileng trib. Fugong Zileng tributary NA 8.0 NA 0.176 1.1
Zileng trib. Fugong Zileng tributary NA 5.5 NA 0.174 0.6
Labuluo Fugong Labuluo River 26.0 10.3 391.0 0.078 4.6
Toulu Fugong Toulu River NA 10.0 NA 0.128 1.5
Nalai Lushui Nalai River 24.0 9.1 830.0 0.127 1.6
Duduluo Lushui Duduluo River 48.0 15.5 598.5 0.100 4.4
Jidu Lushui Jidu River 16.0 4.6 464.9 0.040 2.6
Jidu trib. Lushui Jidu tributary NA 4.6 NA 0.111 2.5
Gutan Lushui Gutan River 7.5 4.0 300.7 0.069 3.1
Laowo Lushui Laowo River 25.0 17.0 177.0 0.029 15.7
a
NA, not applicable.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3106
small hydropower dams are sited, are ungauged, and very
little research has documented aquatic biodiversity of the
remote Nu River and its tributaries.
[12] We thus assess biophysical effects of large and
small dams according to the most comprehensive and com-
plete set of information available, compiling data from a
variety of sources to inform our modeling and analyses. To
obtain information related to small dams, we consult
reports generated during Environmental Impact Assess-
ment (EIA) processes [YBHWR, 2005 ; IWR, 2004, 2005,
2006a, 2006b, 2006c] and during certification through the
Kyoto Protocol’s CDM [UNFCCC/CCNUCC, 2007,
2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c]. We
supplement this official reporting with information gained
through our independent survey of 15 small hydropower
stations. As access to analogous EIA reporting for large
dams is restricted by the central government, we therefore
model potential effects of large hydropower dams using
publically available information from hydropower compa-
nies, development agencies, and academic literature [Plin-
ston and He, 1999; Dore and Yu, 2004]. Given the data-
poor environment in which our analysis occurs, we charac-
terize and report uncertainty of each parameter estimate,
modeling and reporting a range of possible effects for both
small and large dams.
2.3. Data Analysis
2.3.1. Habitat Loss
[13] As a reservoir is filled, terrestrial and riparian habi-
tats within the impoundment are transformed [Lewke and
Buss, 1977; Oliver, 1974], and lotic aquatic habitats within
the former channel become lentic environments [Petts,
1984], changing the habitat and resource base of local and
regional ecosystems. To estimate the quantity of habitat
disturbed by impoundment, we assess the area of land and
length of channel inundated by reservoirs.
[14] Due to differences in system design characterizing
large and small dams of Nujiang Prefecture, the primary
location of direct impact varies. The large dams create
large reservoirs, whereas the direct impacts of small dams
are concentrated within the channel downstream of the
dam. Because the small dams we investigate divert a ma-
jority of river flows for much of the year, we use the term
‘dewatered’’ to describe reaches below diversion dams. To
evaluate alteration of riparian and aquatic habitats down-
stream of small diversion dams due to channel dewatering
[Smith et al., 1991; Dewson et al., 2007 ; Haxton and Fin-
dlay, 2008], we estimate the length of channel to which
flows are reduced as the distance between locations of
water withdrawal (from the reservoir) and return to the nat-
ural river system (at the tailrace leaving the penstock). Fur-
ther, to assess the diversity of habitats disturbed by the
small and large hydropower dams, we integrate areas inun-
dated or dewatered with habitat classifications [The Nature
Conservancy (TNC), 1999], determining the number of
habitat types affected by each project.
2.3.2. Catchment Connectivity
[15] Dams influence the connectivity of river basins by
impeding flows of energy and material from upper to lower
reaches [Ward et al., 1999] and by hindering passage of
migrating or drifting aquatic fauna [Northcote, 1998]. We
evaluate the fraction of catchment area contributing to each
dam as an estimate of potential impact to hydraulic and eco-
logical connectivity. To capture both localized and basinwide
effects, we evaluate catchment connectivity at two scales of
reference: at the scale of the international Salween River ba-
sin and at the scale of individual river catchments.
2.3.3. Priority Conservation Lands
[16] To assess the potential for dams to affect areas iden-
tified as global or regional conservation priorities, we esti-
mate areas of designated conservation lands [UNESCO,
2010; TNC, 2006; Conservation International (CI), 2004,
2010] directly affected (inundated or dewatered) by each
project. At the global scale, UNESCO designates the Three
Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, including portions of the Nu
River basin, as a World Heritage Site [UNESCO, 2003].
TNC and CI delineate regions of global importance for pre-
serving biodiversity, termed Biodiversity Hotspots, within
the Nu River basin. At the regional scale, comprehensive
assessment and delineation of site-scale locations that
Table 2. Metrics Evaluated to Characterize Biophysical Impact of Small and Large Dams
Metric Description Units
Habitat losses
Reservoir surface area Quantity of riparian and terrestrial habitat inundated km
2
River channel inundated or dewatered Quantity of aquatic habitat inundated or dewatered km
Riparian and terrestrial habitat diversity Diversity (number) of riparian and terrestrial habitats inundated or dewatered Number
Catchment connectivity
Basin-scale connectivity Percentage of Salween River basin contributing to dam Percent of basin
Sub-basin-scale connectivity Percentage of subbasin contributing to dam Percent of basin
Priority conservation land
Direct effects to conservation land Area of conservation land inundated or dewatered km
2
Indirect effects to conservation land Proximity of conservation areas to project site Proximity index
Landscape stability
Landslide risk High and severe landslide risk areas inundated or dewatered km
2
Seismic potential Index of reservoir depth, volume, and proximity of active faults Seismic index
Hydrologic and sediment regimes
Potential for flow modification Percentage of annual runoff stored in reservoir or diverted from river Percent runoff
Potential for sediment modification Trap efficiency of reservoir Percent yield
Water quality
Severity of channel dewatering (spatial) Length of dewatered channel km
Severity of channel dewatering (temporal) Percent time channel is dewatered Percent time
Residence time change Change in residence time through impounded reach Percent change
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3107
possess global value as conservation priorities, termed Key
Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), have been undertaken by a
partnership consisting of CI, IUCN, and the Critical Eco-
systems Partnerships Fund (CEPF) [Langhammer et al.,
2007]. The CEPF delineates KBAs according to criteria of
vulnerability and/or irreplaceability of species that are sup-
ported by the specific geographic location. Finally, our
analysis includes Nature Reserves, areas protected at the
national, provincial, or county level for conservation of
biodiversity, where certain land uses are restricted for habi-
tat protection.
[17] Research indicates that, in addition to directly
affecting sensitive biological resources, dams may also
indirectly influence off-site habitats. For instance, at Man-
wan Dam on the Lancang River, China, Zhao et al. [2012]
observed conversion of forest and scrubland to roads, grass-
lands, and farmland and demonstrated a distance-decay
relationship between land conversion and proximity to a
new dam. This pattern of decreasing impact with increasing
distance from the reservoir is relevant to species diversity
and persistence, as changes in land use and habitat frag-
mentation may lead to species loss [Terborgh, 1974 ; Ter-
borgh et al., 2001; Laurance et al., 2002]. We therefore
estimate potential indirect or off-site effects to priority
areas for conservation as an index of proximity to high-pri-
ority conservation areas within the Salween River Basin,
including conservation areas in China, Myanmar, and Thai-
land. We calculate the proximity index as equation (1),
Pindex ¼Xn
i¼1
1
di

;(1)
where P
index
is the proximity index, and d
i
is the minimum
distance between the dam and the ith conservation area
(km) given with nconservation areas.
2.3.4. Landscape Stability
[18] Increasing water surface elevations in reservoirs
may destabilize the base of hillslopes, and construction of
hydropower infrastructure often entails expansion of power
transmission routes and roads to the dam and power gener-
ation sites. Both may increase potential for land disturbance
and landslides in the vicinity of dams. To assess potential
for exacerbation of local landslide hazards, we integrate
project footprints with landslide-risk information. Land-
slide-risk analysis is based on a spatial regression relating
historic landslide occurrence in Nujiang Prefecture to the
variables of slope, vegetation cover, precipitation, and
proximity to roads [Li, 2010]. We then compute total areas
characterized by high to severe risk of landslide that fall
within the footprint of each reservoir.
[19] Reservoir filling can also contribute to landscape
instability through intensification of seismicity [Gupta,
2002; Talwani, 1997]. Empirical data suggest that parame-
ters of reservoir depth, volume, and proximity to active
faults are associated with increased probability of reser-
voir-triggered seismicity, with most documented cases
occurring near reservoirs over 92 m in depth and 12E8 m
3
in volume [Baecher and Keeney, 1982]. However, seismic
events have been triggered by much smaller reservoirs
[Chen and Talwani, 1998]. To evaluate potential for small
and large reservoirs to induce seismic events, we introduce
a seismic index (S
index
) for each project (equation (2)) with
respect to maximum reservoir depth (h
max
), maximum res-
ervoir volume (vol
max
), and minimum distance (1/d
min
)to
active faults.
Sindex ¼hmax volmax 1=dmin:(2)
[20] In determining distances to active faults, we apply
fault data mapped by He and Tsukuda [2003].
2.3.5. Potential for Modified Flow and Sediment
Regimes
[21] Dams disrupt the natural flow of water and sedi-
ments through river systems [Poff et al., 1997 ; Bunn and
Arthington, 2002; Vorosmarty et al., 2003], altering first-
order determinants of the physical riverine environment
that cascade to affect river morphology and ecology [Poff
et al., 2007; Schmidt and Wilcock, 2008 ; Lytle and Poff,
2004]. To evaluate the potential for large and small dams
to modify river flows, we estimate the fraction of annual
runoff controlled by each hydropower project, either
through storage in reservoirs or diversion. With respect to
large dams, from which water is not diverted, we assess
potential for flow modification by comparing annual runoff
at each dam [Dore and Yu, 2004] to modeled reservoir
volumes.
[22] In the case of small dams, we estimate volumes of
water controlled by both reservoir storage and diversion.
We model natural and modified hydrographs at each dam
site, as well as reservoir volumes. We then compare annual
runoff to volumes of water diverted or stored. From this
analysis, we express impacts to flows downstream of small
dams as the proportion of time that downstream channel
flows do not exceed 5% of the mean annual flow, a stand-
ard minimum ecological flow reportedly maintained below
some small dams [e.g., UNFCCC/CCNUCC, 2008b].
[23] Hydrologic gauging stations record discharge on
the mainstem of the Nu River, whereas tributaries to the
Nu River are ungauged. We model flows in tributaries
(equation (3)) following standard methods of runoff pre-
diction for small hydropower planning and design in China
[Chinese Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), 2002],
which are based on hydrologic similarity (inferred from
climatic and catchment similarity) to a nearby gauged
catchment [Falkenmark and Chapman, 1989 ; Blocshi
et al., 2013].
Qdam ¼Qref korðPdam =Pref ÞðAdam=Aref Þ:(3)
[24] Within equation (3), Q
dam
and Q
ref
[Chinese Minis-
try of Hydrology (CMH), 1970, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1982a,
1982b] are the respective mean daily flows simulated at the
proposed dam site and observed at a gauged reference site.
In this case, Q
ref
is recorded at the Tang Shang gauge in the
200 km
2
Yongchun River catchment, a tributary to the
neighboring Lancang River. k
or
is an orographic constant
correcting for elevation-driven differences in precipitation
in the modeled catchment and at the basin precipitation
gauge. P
dam
and P
ref
are daily precipitation observed within
the basin containing the dam and at the Tang Shang gauge,
respectively. A
dam
and A
ref
are the respective basin areas
contributing to the dam and the Tang Shang gauge. We
model mean daily flows at each small dam over three water
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3108
years known to be locally average (1972–1973), above
average (1978–1979), and below average (1965–1966)
with respect to runoff [YBHWR, 2005].
[25] To evaluate potential effects to sediment transport,
we compute the trap efficiency of each reservoir using
equation (4) after Brune’s [1953] trapping efficiency curve,
where
R
is change in residence time of water through
the reservoir as compared to the free-flowing river.
Reservoir trap efficiency ¼10:05=R
ðÞ
0:5

:(4)
[26] As management of reservoir sediments may moder-
ate potential disturbance to sediment yields below dams, we
also consider sediment management activities in our assess-
ment of net reservoir trap efficiency. For example, EIAs,
CDM design documents, and surveys related to small hydro-
power dams indicate that operators hydraulically flush sedi-
ments from behind small dams on a subannual to annual
basis and that this management substantially reduces the net
trap efficiency of small reservoirs.
2.3.7. Water Quality
[27] Processes affecting water quality, such as biogeo-
chemical spiraling, and mass and energy transport, may
change when a river is impounded [Stanley and Doyle,
2002] or when river reaches below a dam are dewatered
[Meier et al., 2003]. To estimate potential for small and
large dams to influence water quality, we evaluate the spa-
tial and temporal extent of channel dewatering below the
dam. We also evaluate potential water quality impacts as
the relative (percent) change in residence time of water
through the reservoir reach, calculated as the ratio of post-
dam to predam residence time.
2.3.8. Assessment of Uncertainty
[28] Given restrictions regarding access to and availability
of information, uncertainty of data used to model biophysical
effects of hydropower dams in Nujiang Prefecture is often
high. To characterize bounds of uncertainty, we model upper
and lower bounds of possible effects and report ranges of
likely potential impact. For example, uncertainty associated
with an estimated reservoir surface area derives from ambi-
guity in true dam location, as well as variability in minimum
and maximum operational pool elevations. We address both
sources of uncertainty by modeling a minimum reservoir
area, at the most upstream location and minimum pool, and a
maximum reservoir area, modeled at the most downstream
location with a maximum pool, and reporting the resulting
range of possible reservoir areas.
3. Results
3.1. Habitat Loss
[29] The mean cumulative impact of land area trans-
formed per unit of power produced is an order of magni-
tude greater for large than for small dams (Table 3 and
Figure 2). In contrast, cumulative effects to lengths of river
channel inundated or dewatered by small dams exceed
those associated with large dams by an order of magnitude
(Table 3 and Figure 2). Mean cumulative effect to habitat
diversity, estimated as the number of riparian and terrestrial
habitats affected, is larger for small dams than for large
dams by 2 orders of magnitude (Table 3 and Figure 2).
3.2. Catchment Connectivity
[30] At the sub-basin scale, cumulative impact to river
connectivity per megawatt of power generated is 2 orders
of magnitude greater for small dams than for large dams. In
contrast, at the scale of the Salween River basin, the mean
effect of large dams is eight times greater than mean effect
of small dams (Table 3 and Figure 2). Although the greater
impact of large dams at the basin scale is not surprising,
our results offer new evidence that illustrates how the cu-
mulative interruption of network connectivity by many
small projects may generate sizable impacts at the subbasin
scale.
3.3. Priority Conservation Lands
[31] Our results indicate that cumulative effects to pro-
tected or high-priority conservation lands are greater for
small dams than for large dams, according to measures of
both direct and off-site impact (Table 3 and Figure 2). With
regard to direct effects of inundation or dewatering, the
mean cumulative effect per unit power of small dams is
two to six times that of large dams, whereas the cumulative
effect per unit power of indirect effects is 2 orders of mag-
nitude greater for small dams than for large dams.
3.4. Landscape Stability
[32] Cumulative effects to landslide-risk areas affected
by small and large dams are similar (Table 3 and Figure 2).
With respect to potential for reservoir-induced seismicity,
cumulative effects of large dams exceed those associated
with small dams by many orders of magnitude, both in
terms of absolute impact and impact per unit power gener-
ated (Table 3 and Figure 2).
3.5. Potential for Flow Modification
[33] Small dams divert flows up to the station design
flow, dewatering downstream river channels during times
of low to moderate flows (Figure 3). Design flows of the
investigated hydropower stations vary from 38% to 286%
of the mean annual flow, with a mean of 145%. Thus, on
average, flows up to 1.45 times the mean annual flow are
diverted. Consequently, rivers below the small dams inves-
tigated are dewatered between 69% and 83% of days, with
a mean of 74% of days (Figure 4).
[34] Alternatively, reservoirs associated with the large
dams store between 0.05% and 15% of the annual runoff
and water is not diverted from the reservoirs. Thus, in com-
paring potential for modifications to the annual hydrograph,
the mean cumulative impact per megawatt of power gener-
ated is 3 to 4 orders of magnitude greater for the small
dams investigated than for the large dams (Table 3 and Fig-
ure 2).
3.6. Potential for Sediment Modification
[35] The mean cumulative effect of sediment trapping
per unit power generated is greater for large dams (Table 3
and Figure 2). To maintain optimal water diversion, small
reservoirs are managed to hydraulically flush stored sedi-
ments at least once per year. Thus, mean cumulative effects
to annual sediment yields below small dams are negligible.
Large reservoirs, by contrast, store large portions of annual
sediment yields, with mean reservoir trapping efficiencies
ranging from 26% to 87%.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3109
Table 3. Cumulative Biophysical Impact Shown as Absolute Impact and Relative to Megawatts of Power Produced by Small (SHP) and Large (LHP) Dams
Reservoir
Surface Area
River Channel Inundated
or Dewatered
Riparian and Terrestrial
Habitat Diversity
Basin-Scale
Connectivity
Subbasin-Scale
Connectivity
Impact
(km
2
)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(km
2
/MW)
Impact
(km)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(km/MW)
Impact
(Number)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Number/MW)
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
SHP max 6.0E03 2.9E04 6.9Eþ00 4.3E01 2.9Eþ00 2.5E01 0.03 1.9E03 73 7.4Eþ00
SHP min 3.4E03 1.6E04 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
LHP max 2.6Eþ01 8.5E03 7.1Eþ01 2.5E02 4.5Eþ00 1.8E03 35 1.5E02 35 1.5E02
LHP min 1.1Eþ01 3.5E03 3.0Eþ01 1.0E02 3.3Eþ00 1.2E03 NA NA NA NA
Direct Effect to
Conservation Land
Indirect Effect to
Conservation Land Landslide Risk Seismic Potential
Potential for
Flow Modification
Impact
(km
2
)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(km
2
/MW)
Impact
(Index)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Index/MW)
Impact
(km
2
)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(km
2
/MW)
Impact
(Index)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Index/MW)
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
SHP max 0.4 2.1E02 3.9 4.0E01 7.6E02 5.1E03 7.0E08 5.6E09 75 8.3Eþ00
SHP min NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
LHP max 30.6 9.6E03 3.6 1.5E03 2.3Eþ01 7.8E03 2.9E01 8.0E05 5 1.4E03
LHP min 10.9 3.5E03 3.0 1.2E03 8.6Eþ00 2.9E03 7.0E02 1.8E05 1 3.2 E04
Potential for
Sediment Modification
Severity of Channel
Dewatering (Spatial)
Severity of Channel
Dewatering (Temporal) Change in Residence Time
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
Impact
(km)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(km/MW)
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
Impact
(Percent)
Impact Per
Unit Power
(Percent/MW)
SHP max 0 0.Eþ00 4.8 4.2E01 83 7.7Eþ00 8.6Eþ02 6.1Eþ01
SHP min 0 0.Eþ00 NA NA 69 6.3Eþ00 5.6Eþ02 3.7Eþ01
LHP max 63 3.E04 0.0 0.0Eþ00 0 0.0Eþ00 2.2Eþ04 8.8Eþ00
LHP min 26 8.E05 0.0 0.0Eþ00 0 0.0Eþ00 8.6Eþ03 3.3Eþ00
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3110
3.7. Water Quality
[36] As a result of water diversion for hydropower pro-
duction, each small dam dewaters a mean 6.8 km of river
channel (Table 3) over 74% of days during an average
water year (Figures 3 and 4). In contrast, large hydropower
dams in this study do not dewater any length of river. The
mean cumulative channel dewatering effect per megawatt
of power produced is thus greater for small dams, with
respect to both spatial and temporal parameters (Table 3
and Figure 2).
[37] Impoundments associated with small dams increase
residence time of water through the inundated reach by a
mean of 600% to 900%. Changes in residence time associ-
ated with large dams are much larger, with mean increases
of 9000% to 22,000%. Although the percent change in resi-
dence time through small reservoirs is less than percent
changes through large reservoirs, the mean cumulative
impact of residence time change per unit power produced
is 7 to 10 times greater for small dams than for large dams
(Table 3 and Figure 2).
4. Discussion
4.1. Cumulative Biophysical Effects : Comparison of
Small and Large Dams
[38] Our results illustrate that small dams in Nujiang Pre-
fecture, defined by installed capacities less than 50 MW,
often generate greater cumulative biophysical effects per
megawatt of installed capacity than large dams. This trend
is demonstrated for 9 of 14 investigated metrics (Figure 5),
including length of river channel affected, diversity of habi-
tats affected, catchment connectivity at the sub-basin scale,
direct and indirect influence to lands designated as conser-
vation and biodiversity priorities, potential to modify
hydrologic regimes, and potential to affect water quality. In
contrast, large dams produce greater effect with respect to
four investigated metrics (Figure 5), including total land
inundation, catchment connectivity at the basin scale,
potential to affect sediment transport, and potential to trig-
ger seismicity. With respect to landslide-risk areas affected,
we observed no measureable difference between large and
small dams. With this exception, differences in magnitude
of impact between groups of small and large dams are sub-
stantial, with mean effects often differing over several
orders of magnitude.
[39] Our observations confirm conclusions of previous
work by Gleick [1992], who found that small hydropower
dams (defined in Gleick’s work according to US standards
as dams with installed capacity <25 MW) exert greater
biophysical impact per unit power produced than large
hydropower dams. Rather than observing biophysical
effects scaling to dam size, Gleick describes segregation of
effect according to project design, reporting less severe
consequences from diversion hydropower dams than from
projects where dam height exceeds gross static head. More
Figure 2. Cumulative biophysical effect per MW of power produced by small (SHP) and large (LHP)
dams. Bold black lines indicate sample means; boxes and whiskers indicate quartiles and 10th and 90th
percentiles, respectively.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3111
recently, Ziv et al. [2012] found that cumulative effects of
78 tributary dams resulted in greater negative impacts to
fish biomass and species at extinction risk than six pro-
posed mainstem dams, while producing less energy and
generating unaddressed transboundary impacts.
[40] In combination with Gleick’s [1992] and Ziv et al.’s
[2012] work, this study illustrates that the current standard
for small hydropower definition, installed capacity, may be
a poor indicator of biophysical impact. Evidence from these
three studies suggests that installed capacity is unlikely to
convey true potential for biophysical impact and that more
comprehensive methods for differentiating high- from low-
impact hydrodevelopment are necessary. The Swiss label-
ing of Green Hydropower [Bratrich et al., 2004] or the
International Hydropower Association criteria for Sustain-
able Hydropower [International Hydropower Association,
2007] are examples of more complex definitions that may
come closer to defining appropriate standards for policies
targeting low-impact hydropower.
[41] Furthermore, this study highlights the need to care-
fully consider potential differences in absolute and power-
scaled impacts of hydropower, both in definitions of low-
impact hydropower as well as in planning and impact assess-
ment. For instance, some absolute effects of an individual
small dam may appear negligible as compared to absolute
effects of a single large dam (Table 2). However, the compar-
ison of absolute impact of one large dam to one small dam is
subjective, as often many small dams must be built to match
the power generation capacity of one large dam. Similarly, in
this study, direct comparison of the absolute impact of infra-
structure generating 417 MW of power (31 small dams) to
infrastructure that generates 10,400 MW of power (four large
dams) is arbitrary and potentially misleading. However,
when effects are evaluated cumulatively over several projects
and scaled to power generation, direct comparison of large
and small dams is possible. Undertaking such direct compari-
son, we find that some cumulative, power-scaled effects of
small hydropower dams exceed those of large hydropower
dams. These results demonstrate the need for comprehensive
planning of low-impact energy development that considers
both the absolute effects of individual projects as well as the
interactive and cumulative effects of multiple projects.
Figure 3. Modeled natural flows (solid lines) and modified flows (broken lines) of Gutan River, Lushui
County, below the small Gutan Dam (7.5 MW) for regional (a) below average, (b) average, and (c)
above-average water years.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3112
4.2. Differential Effects of Large and Small Nu River
Dams
[42] The large and small hydropower facilities investi-
gated in this study segregate along a threshold of installed
capacity (50 MW) determined by the Chinese government.
However, other differences in design and operation better
distinguish magnitudes and expression of potential environ-
mental effects between the small and large dams. In partic-
ular, we observe pronounced differences in potential for
small and large dams to modify discharge and sediment
regimes. For instance, potential hydrologic alterations
established by large hydropower dams relate to the extent
to which reservoirs are able to capture and control flows, as
well as planned operations. Large dams with storage reser-
voirs generally attenuate flood peaks and increase base-
flows downstream [e.g., Gregory et al., 2007]. On the
contrary, reservoirs associated with small dams store rela-
tively minor fractions of annual runoff. However, small
dams divert large volumes of discharge from the river.
Hydropower diversion from small dams predominantly
affects magnitudes of low to moderate flows, as well as
rates of change during transitions between low and high
flows. Until the station design flow for optimal power gen-
eration is met, nearly all river flows are diverted, leaving
several kilometers of river channel below the small dams
dewatered for a majority of the year (Figures 3 and 4).
[43] We observe that effects to sediment transport also
diverge according to hydropower facility design. Reser-
voirs of small dams are hydraulically flushed on a suban-
nual to annual basis, whereas sediment management is not
planned at the large dams investigated. Flushing of stored
sediments from small reservoirs substantially reduces net
trapping efficiencies such that small dams do not appreci-
ably affect annual sediment yields. However, temporary
storage and pulse releases of sediments have potential to al-
ter the timing and quality of sediments delivered to the
downstream channel. Effects of periodic sediment deficit
are likely to extend to the next significant sediment source
downstream. The influence of periodic sediment surplus
related to pulsed releases of stored sediments may be local-
ized [Kibler et al., 2011] or may propagate further down-
stream, with particular expression at tributary confluences
[Curtis et al., 2010; Petts and Greenwood, 1985]. In con-
trast, reduced sediment yield below large dams that contin-
ually trap and store sediments may lead to persistent
sediment deficit downstream.
[44] We emphasize that our observation of greater poten-
tial for sediment transport disruption at large dams is
Figure 4. Percentage of time that small dams dewater downstream river channels. (top) Mean catego-
ries are mean percentages across the 31 small dams investigated (61 SD). Data displayed for (bottom)
individual small dams illustrates how dewatering effects vary among small dams and across typical dry,
average, and wet years.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3113
related to dominant sediment transport processes in the Nu
River and its tributaries and to management of reservoir
sediments. The bedload-dominated sediment supply is
stored by both large and small dams. However, because
stored sediments are flushed from small reservoirs, with
regard to annual sediment yields, the effect of sediment
trapping by small dams is negligible. The dependence of
our results on such sediment management in small reser-
voirs, and the lack of analogous sediment management in
large reservoirs, is an important condition to our reported
sediment-related impacts of large and small dams.
4.3. Differential Permitting and Consequential
Development Trajectories of Large and Small Dams
[45] Large and small hydropower dams are often subject
to divergent processes of permitting and environmental
review. In China, large (>50 MW) dams require oversight
and permissions from the National Development and
Reform Commission at two stages of project development
and may require additional oversight and permissions from
the State Council or National People’s Congress [Magee,
2006]. Small dams are permitted and implemented at the
Prefectural or Provincial level, requiring no collective over-
sight or consideration of potentially cumulative impacts. The
localized effects and small number of people directly
affected by each small dam allow for potential accumula-
tions of incremental effects that are not evident at the time
of decision making nor accounted for through environmental
review processes, whereas potential effects of large projects
are investigated more thoroughly before projects are
approved.
[46] The consequences of different development and gov-
ernance trajectories of small and large dams are evident in
the potential for mitigation opportunities to be adequately
identified, implemented, and enforced. While interviewing
local personnel at the Gongshan County (Nujiang Prefec-
ture) Environmental Protection Board, where staff are re-
sponsible for enforcing EIA requirements of small
hydropower stations, McDonald [2007] learned that manda-
tory monthly inspections of sites for EIA compliance were
seldom completed and that mitigation requirements were of-
ten unmet. Lack of oversight at multiple levels of gover-
nance, paucity of expertise or resources at local government
offices, superficial requirements for environmental assess-
ment, and lack of enforcement creates opportunity for effects
of small dams to accumulate more readily than those of large
dams.
[47] The lack of consideration toward potential environ-
mental effects and mitigation potential is evident in engi-
neering design and operation of small hydropower stations
in Nujiang Prefecture. For example, each small station is
equipped with more than one turbine, such that turbines
may be selectively taken offline during times when river
flows are insufficient to meet design flows. There is oppor-
tunity during times of suboptimal flows to withdraw only
the volume of water needed to power the turbines currently
Figure 5. Summary of study results. Figure 5 indicates whether small hydropower dams (SHP) or large
hydropower dams (LHP) have greater mean cumulative impact per megawatt of power.
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3114
in use, maintaining greater instream flows through much of
the year. However, as flows are not gauged at the dam site
and canal intake designs are not flexible enough to control
the amount of water diverted given suboptimal hydropower
generation scenarios, substantial volumes of water are
diverted from the river but not used for hydropower pro-
duction. The lack of gauging equipment at diversion sites
also suggests that any minimum instream flow standards
that may exist are also not monitored or strictly enforced.
Indeed, we find no mention of mandatory minimum ecolog-
ical flows in EIA reports nor did we observe evidence that
minimum flow standards are upheld in practice during vis-
its to diversion sites.
[48] Although policies mandating environmental stand-
ards for design and operation of small hydropower are of-
ten created at the local level, where projects are permitted,
policies encouraging development of small hydropower are
often crafted at the national or international level. For
instance, many of the small hydropower projects investi-
gated in this study are partially funded by the CDM, devel-
oped as carbon-offsetting projects under the international
Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty. Effects of such de-
velopment policies may be global, for instance in shaping
energy landscapes, or through influences to freshwater bio-
diversity. Despite the global scale of CDM policies, actual
implementation of CDM small hydropower projects pro-
ceeds according to standards set within the host country.
As regulations regarding avoidance and minimization of
ecological impact may vary tremendously throughout host
countries, potential for identification and mitigation of
harmful effects is also variable.
4.4. Study Limitations
[49] The setting of this study within the unique morphol-
ogy of the Nu River basin is important in considering the
transferability of our results to other basins and policy sce-
narios. The Nu River flows within a narrow gorge between
two steep ridges, creating a network of relatively short,
low-volume tributaries with comparatively small catch-
ments that carry runoff from basin divides to the consider-
ably larger (in terms of length, flow, and catchment size)
mainstem river. Small dams constructed on tributaries of
the Nu River are almost exclusively diversion dams that
route water from small reservoirs high in the catchment to
high-gradient penstocks and generating stations several
kilometers away. Large dams are built on the mainstem of
the Nu River and do not divert water. Due to these differen-
ces in design, small and large dams both segregate dis-
cretely in space with respect to size and design and also
affect the surrounding landscape in profoundly different
ways, complicating the process of selecting comparable
evaluation metrics.
[50] As a consequence of the Nu River basin hydrogeol-
ogy, our sample of small dams consist solely of diversion
dams situated on small, steep tributaries, whereas the large
mainstem dams investigated are comparatively very large
with respect to installed capacity. A similar study set within
a more dendritic river basin may have yielded a more var-
ied selection of large dams, with the installed capacity of
some facilities closer to the 50 MW policy threshold. We
cannot provide conclusive evidence that our sample repre-
sents the population of dams in Nujiang Prefecture, as
information regarding the total population of dams is not
available. However, field visits and examination of Nu
River basin hydrology indicate that our sample is likely
representative of the population. With exception of one
river, the Dimaluo River, tributaries large enough to sup-
port large hydropower stations are not present in this por-
tion of the Nu River basin.
[51] Our definition of small hydropower, set at <50 MW
according the Chinese hydropower policy threshold,
encompasses dams that would not classify as small hydro-
power elsewhere in the world where policies define small
hydropower by lower thresholds of installed capacity. Our
sample of small hydropower dams, varying between 2.5 to
49 MW, with a mean of 19 MW, covers a large range of
dam sizes and impact magnitudes, as is reflected in the
wide distribution of data around mean effects (Figure 2).
Whether similar analysis using a different policy definition
of small hydropower would result in comparable conclu-
sions is uncertain and should be explored.
[52] The data environment in which this analysis is set
may also influence study outcomes. Although our selection
of dam impacts is independent of data accessibility, our
methods of evaluating magnitudes of impact are influenced
by availability of information. Estimates of effect are char-
acterized by large uncertainties in the dataset, reflected for
example, in the wide ranges between estimates of minimum
and maximum effects of large dams (Figure 2). Our sam-
ples of large and small dams also often encompass great
variability of effect, evident in the spread of data around
mean effects (Figure 2). Additionally, tributary catchments
to the Nu River are ungauged, thus the runoff models we
apply to estimate flows are uncalibrated and we are unable
to validate results. Although uncertainty related to flows
modeled by this method is unknown, this runoff model is
widely applied to hydropower design in the region and is
used to determine design flows of the small hydropower
dams analyzed in this study. As our assessment of flow
modification below small dams is relative to design flows
informed by this runoff model and is not contingent on ac-
curacy of specific values, we are satisfied that flows simu-
lated by this model are of sufficient quality for the purpose
of our analysis.
[53] A number of sources of uncertainty are represented
in our results, including the aforementioned sources related
to ambiguity in final locations of the proposed large dams
and details regarding planned reservoir operations. With re-
stricted access to dam operations data, predicting the extent
and severity of effects downstream of large dams is particu-
larly challenging. In the case of the large Nu River dams,
where detailed information regarding dam operations and
subsequent changes to flow magnitudes, duration, timing,
and predictability are not available, detailed predictions of
change to downstream channel morphology are unachiev-
able. Channel effects related to large dams may occur far
from dam sites [Richter et al., 2010], yet lacking sufficient
data, we are unable to account for these potential changes
with a high degree of confidence.
[54] Moreover, it is extremely difficult to predict how
downstream changes to hydrology, river channels, and ri-
parian areas may affect biodiversity. Although we directly
estimate the area of conservation priority land inundated by
reservoirs, our use of a distance-decay function to estimate
KIBLER AND TULLOS: BIOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF SMALL AND LARGE HYDROPOWER
3115
off-site impacts is inferential. However, because large and
small dams in Nujiang Prefecture are built in different loca-
tions (large dams in the valley bottom, smaller dams higher
in the catchment on tributaries), there is a distinct separa-
tion of effect between the proximity of small and large
dams to conservation areas, which tend to occur in the
more remote upper catchments where farming is limited by
slope and where portions of original vegetation remain
intact.
[55] Finally, although the objectives of this study are lim-
ited to investigation of biophysical impact, it is likely that
socioeconomic consequences of small hydropower may exist
and may be similar or dissimilar to what has been reported
for large dams in the Nu River [Tullos et al., 2013]. Further
investigation of socioeconomic and geopolitical effects
related to small and large dams are necessary to thoroughly
inform integrative definitions of low-impact hydropower.
5. Conclusions
[56] Our results indicate that small and large hydropower
dams, as defined by Chinese hydropower laws, affect
aquatic ecosystems in different ways. Small dams (<50
MW) return greater impacts, per megawatt of power gener-
ated, with respect to the length of river channel affected, di-
versity of habitats affected, influence to lands designated as
conservation and biodiversity priorities, and potential for
modification of hydrologic regimes and water quality. Con-
versely, we report greater cumulative effects for large dams
(>50 MW) related to total land inundation, potential sedi-
ment transport disruption, and potential for reservoir-
induced seismicity. Effects to catchment connectivity vary
according to the scale of reference, with effects of small
dams exceeding those of large dams at a sub-basin scale
and opposite trends observed at the international scale of
the Salween Basin. Despite data uncertainties and variabili-
ty, our results indicate differences in cumulative biophysi-
cal impact of large and small dams that exceed both
modeling uncertainty and sample variability.
[57] Rooted in the assumption that the biophysical con-
sequences of small hydropower dams are fewer and less
severe than those associated with large hydropower, current
national and international development policies often en-
courage growth in the small hydropower sector while dis-
couraging construction of large dams. These policies often
define small and large hydropower dams according to a
simple metric of installed capacity. Our results indicate that
this definition of small hydropower is inadequate for
describing the scale of potential environmental impact.
Results of this study present evidence that further and more
rigorous investigation of the cumulative effects of small
hydropower and comparative effects of large and small
hydropower are needed to develop coupled water and
energy policies that more accurately define and support
low-impact hydropower development.
[58]Acknowledgments. The authors thank Aaron Wolf, Gordon
Grant, Phil Brown, Darrin Magee, and Bryan Tilt for their contribu-
tion to the study design. He Daming, Feng Yan, and staff of the
Asian International Rivers Centre of Yunnan University and the Chi-
nese Hydrology Data Project provided support in data procurement.
Gordon Grant helped to substantially improve this manuscript. This
work was funded by the National Science Foundation (Awards
0623087 and 0826752).
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... While hydropower projects are considered as green development, it has several environmental problems 2,9,11,12 . Large hydropower projects have severe adverse regional environmental impacts due to secondary impacts such as deforestation, regional development, disturbance to wildlife 18, 33,34 . Similarly, the cumulative effect of several hydropower projects in an area also has several adverse environmental impacts 8, 14,32,35 . ...
... The data and maps for the study were collected from secondary sources from 16 August to 15 Data extraction I considered the license boundary of the project issued by the DoED (for government projects that do not require a license, the coordinate listed in the DoED website was considered) as the location of hydropower projects as most of the project structures are located inside the license boundary. Although most of the previous studies on hydropower projects' impacts focus on the number of dams 11,14,16,19,33,65 , there are debates about whether single large or several small hydropower projects have higher environmental impacts 8,18,32,33,35,60,62,66 . So, I considered both the numbers and total capacity of hydropower projects for this study. ...
... The data and maps for the study were collected from secondary sources from 16 August to 15 Data extraction I considered the license boundary of the project issued by the DoED (for government projects that do not require a license, the coordinate listed in the DoED website was considered) as the location of hydropower projects as most of the project structures are located inside the license boundary. Although most of the previous studies on hydropower projects' impacts focus on the number of dams 11,14,16,19,33,65 , there are debates about whether single large or several small hydropower projects have higher environmental impacts 8,18,32,33,35,60,62,66 . So, I considered both the numbers and total capacity of hydropower projects for this study. ...
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The hydropower project’s construction is increasing that can affect the terrestrial environment. Hydropower projects located in environmentally sensitive areas have higher environmental impacts, so I analyzed the spatio-temporal interaction between hydropower projects’ locations and terrestrial environmentally sensitive areas of Nepal to visualize the probable environmental impacts. I found that most of the existing projects lie on the hill, however, future projects are moving northward. Among the 12 eco-regions of Nepal, hydropower projects are located in 10 eco-regions. Hydropower projects were found to interact with more than half of biodiverse areas of the country (28 out of 45), and more than five thousand megawatts of hydropower projects are located completely inside these biodiverse areas. The study suggests that the interaction between hydropower projects and environmentally sensitive areas might increase in the future. Hydropower projects should avoid environmentally sensitive areas such as biodiverse areas and protected areas as far as possible to minimize the impacts. Rapid hydropower development is a necessity in countries like Nepal, so further studies on the impacts of hydropower projects on environmentally sensitive areas as well as improvement of the quality of the environmental assessment of the projects are necessary for environment-friendly development.
... Small hydropower plants can therefore cause serious damage to the river ecosystem. When comparing small and large hydropower plants, small hydropower plants have a greater negative impact per megawatt of electricity produced [5,6]. ...
... From the hydraulic power value obtained, the hydraulic efficiency was calculated using Eq. (5). Other parameters, such as mechanical and electric power, can only be determined when the corresponding efficiencies are known. ...
... The total hydraulic efficiency of a small floating power plant was determined from the dimensional parameters of the wheel/pontoon system and from the physical properties of the water flow using Eqs. (1) to (5). Table 2 were determined successively and the resulting total hydraulic efficiency is 0.744. ...
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This study deals with the research and development of the optimal design of a small floating hydroelectric power plant by theoretical analysis and the subsequent conceptual design of the optimal variant. A computational fluid dynamics (CFD) system is used for theoretical analyses of flow, flow around, free surface properties, and motion of bodies in the water. The aim of this study is to identify the optimal geometry and construction of a small floating hydroelectric power plant. In the study, five different versions of floating pontoons are designed and analysed in the first phase. CFD analysis is used to determine the choice of the most suitable concept, which is further modified based on the calculation results. The result of the study is the design of a suitable design solution, which obviously achieves higher efficiency compared to a conventional water wheel. Finally, the further direction of research is presented, with a focus on maximising the performance and further optimisation of the small floating hydroelectric power plant structures.
... In view of the proliferation of flood-prevention dams in the world's river systems, the challenge appears as to their cumulative impacts on water environments. An endeavor to evaluate these flood-prevention facilities' cumulative environmental impacts suggested that a large number of small dams or sluices may have an immeasurable impact on energy generation than that of large ones [18]. Thus, there is an urgent requirement to understand the multiple environmental impacts of small flood-prevention development and to understand how these dams or sluices might be better developed and managed. ...
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Urban river pollution is considered a ‘necessary evil’ consequence of disproportionate developmental expansion in metropolises. Unprecedented expansion and anthropic activities lead to the deterioration of urban rivers with municipal and industrial sewage. The construction of sluices is one of the irrefutable parts of the process. In order to prevent floods and drought, many cities build sluices and dams in rivers to balance water quantity in different seasons. To explore the change characteristics of the water quality in urban rivers after the construction of sluices and dams, the change in the total phosphorus (TP) and total nitrogen (TN) concentrations upstream and downstream of rivers was investigated under the condition of sluices closure in Wuxi. According to the results, when the sluices were closed, the pollutants of TP and TN would accumulate upstream in rivers, which caused the water quality in the upper reaches to be worse than that in the lower reaches. Specifically, the TN and TP concentrations downstream of urban rivers in Wuxi were approximately 14.42% and 13.80% lower than those upstream when the sluices were closed. Additionally, the water quality in urban rivers was usually better in summer and autumn than in the other seasons, showing obvious seasonality after the construction of the sluices. The research will provide a theoretical basis for future sluice operation and the water resources management of urban rivers.
... Despite these and other advantages of hydropower, there are issues regarding emissions and environmental impacts from hydropower generation. There has been a surge in global awareness of the environmental impact of hydropower plants such as depletion of natural resources, emissions, pollution, deforestation and soil degradation [6]. Large-scale dams can have a substantial impact on the regional environment. ...
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Nigeria is blessed with so many human and natural resources but there is a vital need to harness these resources to serve its citizens. Renewable energy remains the cleanest and most reliable energy type and Nigeria is blessed with quite a number of these renewable energy resources. Small hydropower is among the most accessible types of renewable energy. By encouraging private investment in the energy sector through reforms, the Nigerian government has diversified its energy sources to support the development of renewable energy, but this may not be sufficient given that the nation still faces obstacles to the construction of Small Hydropower Plants (SHPs). One of such barriers is the lack of a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be carried out on the proposed SHPs in Nigeria. This review paper evaluates the need to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the small hydropower plants in Nigeria. It is concluded that for the hydropower plants to stand the test of time, for it to operate adequately and for the communities surrounding such plants not to be adversely affected by the construction of these plants, a proper EIA has to be carried out.
... Small hydropower plants generate limited employment opportunities after construction and tend to lack significant other benefits for local communities as promises of free electricity, scholarships, and other infrastructure often fail to materialise, while electrification itself can heighten class divisions (Kumar and Katoch 2015;Ptak 2019). Much like large dams, its purported ecological sustainability rests on the 'fetishisation' of GHG emissions, with a host of studies suggesting that small hydropower plants cause significant ecological alterations that can rival those of large dams when cumulative impacts of various small plants are considered (Abbasi and Abbasi 2011;Anderson, Freeman, and Pringle 2006;Bakken et al. 2012;Kibler and Tullos 2013). Small hydropower development can thus occasion significant socioecological disruptions that can amount to green grabbing as they 'cause reductions to water access … or de-water entire river sections' (Hennig and Harlan 2018, 124). ...
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Nahua and Totonakú activists in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico, have challenged the state-sanctioned and corporate-driven imposition of small hydropower projects as sustainable development. They deploy a counter-hegemonic discourse that labels these projects as proyectos de muerte that perpetuate violence and rearticulate coloniality. Simultaneously, they engage in proyectos de vida that build an alternative future premised on Indigenous resurgence and autonomy. The findings illustrate the importance of analysing ontological dimensions of violence and demonstrate the urgency of articulating decolonial alternatives to the sustainable development paradigm and its approach to the renewable energy transition.
... Worse still, the cumulative impacts of multiple hydropower dams are often much greater than the simple sum of their direct impacts (Gergel, 2002;Berkun, 2010;Birkel et al., 2014). A series of dams can severely impact an entire watershed (Kibler and Tullos, 2013), even if each of the individual dams may have a relatively low impact when considered in isolation. The extent of this damage can be much greater when combined with a whole host of other threats to rivers such as poor water quality, a growing demand for scarce water, encroaching urbanization, and poor land management practices (Nel et al., 2007;Tockner et al., 2010). ...
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... The literature describes the impact of hydropower on society, economy and the environment (Kuriqi et al. 2021, Tomczyk & Wiatkowski 2020. In the context of environmental research, particular attention is paid to the impact of hydropower plants on the conditions for the migration of aquatic organisms (Puzdrowska & Heese 2019, Virbickas et al. 2021), on the accumulation and erosion processes below the damming (Soininen et al. 2018, Kibler & Tullos 2013, but mainly on the hydrological conditions not only within hydropower facilities, but also at longer distances (Bejarano et al. 2017, Chiogna et al. 2016, Fantin-Cruz et al. 2015. ...
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