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“Dammed or damned: Five open challenges in sustainable river basin development”

Andrea Castelletti, Matteo Giuliani, Marta Zaniolo

Environmental Intelligence Lab

Politecnico di Milano


Large storage systems play a key role for securing water, energy, and food, and thus increasing socioeconomic development and reducing poverty worldwide. This is leading developing countries and international agencies to undertake major investments in dam construction, primarily to produce hydropower. Globally, about 3,700 new major dams are planned or under construction. Dam booming has multiple reasons. Hydropower is generally regarded as a valuable renewable and clean energy resource. Additionally, hydropower reservoirs provide important ancillary services to the electric system as well as non-energy services like flood control and water supply for food production. Despite these many potential benefits, dams can create substantial negative environmental externalities that are commonly underestimated in single large dam developments as well as in the development of multi-dam schemes in large river networks. This talk will analyse the main challenges and barriers to internalizing such externalities, and explore the potential role of Artificial Intelligence and optimal control in supporting a paradigm shift in modern river basin development. A particular focus will be devoted to investigating the potential value of the unprecedent torrent of information that today is available, but still rarely used, for supporting water resources planning and management. We show how machine learning tools can be employed to synthetize global datasets of climate oscillations (e.g., sea surface temperature) into a valuable source of predictability of local hydro-meteorological anomalies, and how sustainable dam planning, initial dam filling, and regime operations can benefit from it.

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