All life begins with water. It is the most important among all natural resources as life on earth is unimaginable without it. Access to water is not only a basic requirement for human survival but is also critical for sanitation, food production, socio-economic development, environment, and energy. Among all basic human needs, water holds paramount importance as individual and communal life is dependent on it.
It is estimated that every person requires 20-50 liters of water a day. However, not every human being gets it in the same proportion. About 30% of the world’s population lacks access to clean drinking water while 60% lack safe sanitation facilities. People having a stable supply of water often take the resource for granted and use it with reckless abandon. However, every now and then, we do hear stories reminding us that it is not a limitless resource. In 2018, a doomsday-like scenario jolted us all when Cape Town announced that it is approaching 'Day-Zero’ – the day when the city would officially turn off its water supplies. While the catastrophe was eventually averted as the result of a huge collective effort, such events are a reminder about the undeniable importance of water in our lives.
The importance of water as a basic natural resource also makes it a sensitive one. Throughout history, there have been many conflicts triggered by water security and access issues. With the growing human population and its increasing requirements for water consumption, nations are worried about the issues of water stress, water scarcity and water security. The world’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 while the water demand would increase by 55% according to a UN report. Therefore, growing insecurity regarding water access makes it a very sensitive issue.
The concerns regarding territorial claims and water rights become more severe in the case of transboundary waters – the rivers, lakes, canals and aquifers that are shared between two or more countries. Since 1948, there have been 37 incidents of acute conflicts over transboundary waters. Right now, there are 276 river basins, hosting about 40% of the world’s population, that cross the boundaries of two or more counties. However, only one-third of these have cooperative management frameworks agreed between countries for peaceful and cooperative resolution of water-related issues. That leaves behind two-thirds of the river basins as possible flashpoints for international conflicts.
A transboundary river usually turns into a conflict between nations when an upstream country decides to build a hydroelectric dam on that river. By building a dam, there are environmental, ecological and socio-economic changes experienced by the other country located downstream. It not only changes the flow of the river and impacts water characteristics, but also obstructs the migration of fish which can impact the source of livelihood of freshwater fishers downstream. The reduced water flow also means less downstream water for irrigation and transportation activities. Therefore, building an upstream hydroelectric dam on an international river is almost equivalent to instigating a ‘water war’.
There are numerous conflicts in the world that arise out of building such hydroelectric dams. For example, the Brahmaputra river dispute between China and India, conflicts between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the construction of Turkish dams on the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, or the ongoing disputes between India and Pakistan over the construction of Indian dams on its western rivers. In fact, the countries do not even have to share boundaries to enter into a potential water war situation. The construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is making Egypt extremely insecure (the river Nile flows in a south-north direction from Ethiopia into Egypt via Sudan), as the Nile is paramount to Egypt’s socio-economy.
While there are international bodies, organizations and institutes that try to mediate and broker into water conflicts, a totally novel approach could be taken to prevent such situations from arising in the first place. Instead of developing massive hydroelectric dams over international rivers, a network of decentralized, small hydroelectric power stations can be built to generate electricity without facing the detrimental effects of large dams. Small power plants that operate on run-of-the-river principles neither impact the flow of the water nor restrict the movement of fish. As there are no large reservoirs to be built, there are no negative impacts on water chemistry, water temperature, silt loads, etc. Moreover, to develop a small hydropower plant, relatively low upfront costs and space are required. For the sake of comparison, the large Balbina Dam in Brazil has flooded 2,360 square kilometers of land to generate 250 MW of electricity. This comes out to be 2,000 acres per MW produced. On the other hand, a small hydroelectric plant can be developed closer to the consumption site which significantly reduces the transmission and distribution related costs. As a source of renewable energy, they are also aligned with green energy principles. More importantly, if such power plants can also help in preventing water conflicts, their adoption becomes an obvious choice.
Turbulent’s award-winning hydropower technology complies with all the characteristics of small power plants that have been mentioned above. The water that is used to rate the turbine is recycled back to the mainstream, therefore, the flow of the river is not impacted as it can be installed by simply adding a small bypass to the main body of the river. The innovative design, with curved blades and low revolutions per minute rotor, allows the aquatic life to pass through the turbine unharmed. Moreover, by working in decentralized mode, these systems can be installed in remote areas and provide electricity locally closer to the source. This also eliminates the need of investing into huge transmission networks that are required in the case of large hydroelectric dams. Since these small hydro plants do not alter the flow of the river downstream, they can even be installed close to any international border without the fear of instigating a water war.
Amid the rising concerns about water security, it makes sense to utilize our water resources in a clean and sustainable manner. We can only avoid water wars if there is enough water for every nation to fulfill its requirements and this can only happen if the existing water resources are preserved and used judiciously. As we have seen, building large hydroelectric dams is not the solution – neither environmentally nor politically. A sustainable way forward is to focus on the world’s small hydro potential and solutions like Turbulent hold the key to our future.