The collapse of two dams in Libya, triggered by intense rainfall from a climate-change-supercharged Mediterranean cyclone, has raised concerns about the increasing dangers associated with aging dams worldwide. The consequences of the dam collapses in Libya were catastrophic, leading to the loss of lives, displacement of tens of thousands of people, and heightened risks for children.
One of the main reasons for the increasing danger of dams is their aging infrastructure. Most of the world's dams were built before 1985, and they are either approaching or have passed the point where substantial repairs are needed (around 50 years old). Despite this, few dams are undergoing necessary repairs.
In the United States, where the average dam is 65 years old, there are significant risks associated with aging dams. The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given U.S. dams a grade of "D" in infrastructure reports, emphasizing the urgent need for maintenance.
The situation is even worse in other countries with more strained government budgets. The article mentions that dysfunction and lack of maintenance are common issues, as seen in Libya, where dam weaknesses were known, but repairs were not carried out due to various challenges.
Climate change is identified as a contributing factor, making dam collapses more likely. The design of many dams was based on outdated hydrological records that did not account for the effects of climate change. Increased variability in precipitation levels and the frequency of extreme weather events pose challenges to dam planning.
Removing dams entirely, especially older ones, may be the most effective solution. Dam removal, still in its early stages, is gaining momentum in the U.S. and Europe. The removal benefits the environment by restoring river ecosystems, improving water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with reservoirs.
The environmental impact of dams is compared to that of fossil fuels, with both being recognized for delivering short-term benefits but having hidden long-term environmental costs. Reservoirs, particularly in tropical regions, emit methane, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
In conclusion, the urgent need for global attention to the risks associated with aging dams and the potential for catastrophic failures, emphasizing the importance of proactive measures, including maintenance, monitoring, and in some cases, dam removal, to ensure the safety of communities and the environment.