The theme of this year’s World Water Week (kicking off this Sunday in Stockholm) is “energy and water,” an acknowledgement of the critical yet complex relationship between these two forces. A version of this post was originally published on CGIAR’s Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog.
Who would have thought that restoring cloud forests could help keep the lights on during periods of water scarcity and electricity rationing? This news may seem surprising — but as one of the scientists behind this research, I can tell you that it’s quite encouraging.
Electricity rationing has been a special concern lately for tropical countries like Brazil, which depend heavily on hydropower. This year, the risk of electricity shortages in the country tops 20%, well above the 5% the Brazilian government deems acceptable.
Why? To put it simply, there’s just not enough water. According to a recent article in The Economist, Brazil generates roughly 80% of its electricity from hydropower plants. Yet minimal rainfall coupled with high temperatures has meant that reservoirs in the southeast and west, which represent around 70% of Brazil’s total storage capacity, are currently only 40% full.
Other countries like Colombia have also been stricken by severe drought this year. Although there is no risk of electricity rationing, the public has been advised to save water as a precautionary measure. Some of the drought impacts have likely been exacerbated by poor environmental management — and if climate change continues to have the effect scientists predict, they won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
But here’s the good news: Cloud forests can help. Tropical cloud forests act like a sponge, filtering water, regulating flow to rivers and reducing sedimentation — important services that can prolong the life of dams.
We focused our newest study on the Calima dam, an important hydropower plant in Colombia. By using sophisticated computer modelling, we estimated that if Calima restored cloud forests in less than 18% of its watershed, it could increase its energy output by about 5%.
These energy gains vary based on a number of factors, but in general energy security benefits are likely to be even greater for other Colombian dams that already face significant sedimentation problems, have lost greater proportions of cloud forest upstream and have lower reservoir capacities compared with the Calima dam.
Through this study, my colleagues and I also researched the current regulations for energy security and expansion in Colombia. We have found that if the value of protecting and restoring cloud forests was incorporated into Colombia’s energy security plan, the company that runs the Calima dam could make between 5–10% more profit depending on the degree of water scarcity during a given year.
Some of these extra funds could be channeled to compensate poor landowners for their help restoring cloud forests. This initiative would complement other watershed management activities currently underway — like Payments for Watershed Services (PWS) and water funds — which are also trying to reduce poverty in the region.
Colombia isn’t the only place where cloud forest restoration is important for dam performance. An earlier study indicates that 41% of global remaining cloud forests filter a large proportion of the high-quality water that ensures the operation of tropical dams, and yet our planet has lost already more than 55% of these important water “sponges.”
It’s clear that restoring and protecting cloud forests that lie upstream of dams is a cost-effective way to ensure energy security in tropical areas. Not only will it help improve the performance of existing water infrastructure, it will also help make the interconnected food-water-energy system in these countries more efficient and sustainable — a measure recommended by the World Commission on Dams and the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, two major global frameworks dedicated to improving the performance of dams and hydropower infrastructure.
Also, since dams can operate for over a century, the economic and environmental benefits aren’t just short term; they can be enjoyed for many decades, paying off any cost of restoration and safeguarding nature and biodiversity for future generations.
Together with partners, CI is working to communicate this useful research to the Colombian government and private hydropower companies to encourage greater protection and restoration of cloud forests.
When it comes to meeting the planet’s current and future energy needs, it’s clear that conventional engineering will play an important role. Yet it’s also in our best interest to understand and value the role that nature can play in helping us get where we need to go.
As new green energy opportunities expand around the world, it seems that the conservation of cloud forests can be a truly viable solution to enhance energy security in water-scarce years, while also ensuring the survival of some of the planet’s most biodiversity-rich ecosystems and the communities who depend on them.
Leonardo Sáenz is CI’s director of eco-hydrology. He would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Dr. Fred Scatena, who helped advance our understanding of these beautiful ecosystems and of their important services to people. This study was conducted by CI in collaboration with King’s College London, the Challenge Program on Water and Food and BlueSmart, a consulting and environmental engineering company.