Know your flow, bro

What the hell is Patagonia doing worrying about some dams in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I know right?! Hydropower is part of the solution to the climate crisis. Without them we are in real trouble. Rivers are nice, but clean energy is nicer. Why does Patagonia have to ruin everything? Why can’t they just stick to cleaning up factories, continuing their Fair Trade crusade, and keep sharing cool stories about Belinda Baggs hanging ten toes, a Malloy brother on a bike ride, or a Chilean charger owning Cloudbreak during the swell of the decade?

Why? Because they’re right. They’re bloody right. These dams aren’t what they seem. Hydropower ain’t so clean. It’s time to know your flow, bro.

Hydroelectric dams in tropical forest areas emit greenhouse gases, as illustrated by the Curuá-Una Dam in the Amazonian portion of Brazil. Emissions include carbon dioxide from decay of the above-water portions of trees that are left standing in the reservoir and methane from soft vegetation that decays under anaerobic conditions on the bottom of the reservoir, especially macrophytes (water weeds) and vegetation that grows in the drawdown zone and is flooded when the reservoir water level rises. Some methane is released from the reservoir surface through bubbling and diffusion, but larger amounts are released from water passing through the turbines and spillway. Methane concentration in the water increases with depth, and the turbines and spillway draw water from sufficient depth to have substantial methane content. In 1990 (13 years after filling), the Curuá-Una Dam emitted 3.6 times more greenhouse gases than would have been emitted by generating the same amount of electricity from oil.”

This is the abstract from a paper written way back in 2004 titled ‘Do Hydroelectric dams mitigate global warming? The case of Brazil’s Curua-una Dam’, by Philip M. Fearnside. Academic papers can get a little tiresome, but this one isn’t because it is so direct and straight to the point (the title says it all right?). So, how exactly do hydroelectric dams contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?

The paper goes into quite a lot of detail, but here are the basics when it comes to climate impact of dams:

  • - The above-water portions of trees left standing in a flooded area decay and release emissions;

  • - The ‘soft’ vegetation below-water decays under anaerobic conditions and releases methane gas, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2;

  • - Methane is released through the surface of reservoirs from bubbling and diffusion

  • - Larger amounts of methane is released when water passes through turbines to create electricity.

Just how much CO2 equivalent can be emitted by a hydroelectric dam like this one referenced in Brazil?

From the paper’s conclusion:

“At Curuá- Una emissions were greater than the fossil-fuel emission displaced by the power generated by the dam: 3.6 times more impact in 1990 (13 years after filling the reservoir), a level of emission that can be expected to remain stable over the long term”

What’s funny about this greenhouse gas emission fact about hydroelectric power is that the International Hydropower Association admits it openly on their website (while sowing some seeds of doubt regarding the enormity of the emissions):

“In certain conditions, a reservoir created by a hydropower dam will release greenhouse gases due to the decomposition of flooded organic material. In other conditions, a reservoir may act as carbon sink: absorbing more emissions than it emits.

A number of researchers have measured reservoir emissions at dam sites around the world, but each study is usually site-specific and the results not applicable to the great majority of reservoirs elsewhere.”

The second part of the quote above is most important to ponder. What we do know is that research into the carbon impact of dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric power stations has been historically limited, so for the International Hydropower Association to assert so strongly that it is nothing to worry about because “each study is usually site-specific and the results not applicable to the great majority of reservoirs elsewhere” arouses suspicion. Have they studied the other ‘great majority of reservoirs elsewhere’ and deemed them carbon neutral? And is it just me or am I wrong in assuming that the biological processes of decomposing plant matter might be kinda the same everywhere?

But this is just the climate question. There are other legitimate reasons why dams can be problematic.

Yvon Chouinard evidently loves a bubbling brook. The sound of a stream in spring clearly gets his juices flowing. In a recent article written for Patagonia’s ‘Cleanest Line’ blog Yvon put forth his arguments against dams and they themselves hold water (pun very much intended).

He writes:

“I first learned about the damage caused by dams because of my interest in rivers as an avid fisherman. Rivers aren’t just stunningly beautiful; they are the arteries of the planet, moving nutrients and vital sediment from land to ocean and feeding plankton and fish.”

“Dams threaten all this. Unlike solar or wind energy, hydropower sends species to extinction, displaces communities and contributes to climate change.”

It’s pretty compelling stuff. The loss of species is something that hurts me deep inside, and while it has been said before that scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than how many species there are on Earth, what we know is that species loss is real and happening because of us. According to the WWF website, if the upper estimate of species numbers is true (that there are about 100 million different species co-existing with us on Earth) then between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year. Do we need to let not-so-carbon-neutral hydro-electric dams claim some more species?

In addition, there is the people element. You know, the ones who happen to unfortunately call ‘home’ the patch of land that might be scheduled for flooding. And this is where Patagonia has stepped in recently. 

The Balkan Peninsula is home to a large number of free-flowing rivers in Europe, in fact some of the last remaining they reckon. Like in other regions of the world already dammed, generations of people have relied on these rivers for drinking water and for irrigation of gardens and small farms for a very long time, and a literal biblical flood is what the future looks like for them. 

Patagonia has been working with local Balkan activists and communities opposing the dams, such as Bosnian women on the Kruščica River, but the question that I think comes to mind for those of us often looking more to the seas than inland at the rivers that connect to them is: how did Patagonia in Europe come to prioritise such a campaign?

Jelle Mul is the Senior Marketing Manager for Europe at Patagonia and also a lover of bicycles and photography. He even does both at the same time. Check out his Instagram (@jellemul) for some high quality Lycra-clad touring through The Netherlands, as well as some pretty bloody good surf photos too.

I sat down with Jelle in Scotland recently during a press tour hosted by Patagonia. We were testing out their newest line of wetsuits and learning about Fair Trade (amongst other things and Scotch whisky…). For Jelle, when asked about the rationale for putting such a high level of communications effort into a topic such as proposed dams in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he says such a decision rests on the pillars of the Patagonia mission statement.

In his own words:

“We are a mission driven company, which means the mission statement always comes first: Building the best product; causing no unnecessary harm; and using the business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

But how did Patagonia come to focus on what for most of us are obscure wild rivers in the Balkans?

The Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, created by a coalition of NGOs and supported globally by Patagonia, is about supporting local NGOs and communities in the Balkan region to fight back against the 3,000 or so proposed dam projects proposed in the area, many involving small hydropower diversion dams (which divert water from rivers and even drain stretches of rivers dry). The ‘how’ behind Patagonia’s involvement is an interesting blend of data collection, corporate philanthropy and team interest.

In 2002, Patagonia became one of the founding partners of the 1% for the Planet initiative, whereby businesses pledge to donate one percent of revenues to environmental initiatives around the world. Environmental NGOs can apply for money to support their initiatives and businesses can choose to support those that have a resonance with their reason for existence, customers and employees.

By that point, Patagonia already had a long history of supporting grassroots groups searching for solutions to the environmental crisis and founder Yvon Chouinard launched 1% for the Planet in partnership with Craig Mathews, the founder of Blue River Flies, in order to encourage and assist likeminded businesses around the world to do the same.

1% for the Planet has given away more than 175 million USD to environmental causes and Patagonia alone has given away almost 90 million USD to date,” says Jelle.

Patagonia has a grants council, formed by team members from all areas of the business, who come together to decide where funds should be allocated each year. “So, as in years past, individuals and initiatives would apply for money and each application is then read through by the Social and Environmental Department and evaluated. Then, three years ago, something strange happened. Our director of environmental initiatives, Mihela Hladin Wolfe comes from Slovenia,” explains Jelle. “She noticed that a significant number of applications were being made from the Balkan region, requesting support for the same thing - protesting these dams.”

This was enough for Patagonia to take a closer look into the situation and form a deeper strategy that included the individual actors in the region, coupled with extra resources from Patagonia. Analysis of the data available, investigating further, and bringing together international stakeholders to create a stronger force is what happened, and there is a lot we can all take away from that.

The campaign to Save the Blue Heart of Europe is far from an assured victory. Big banks stand to make money on investments, construction companies are lobbying politicians, and the public (which until recently included myself) are ignorant of the facts about hydropower. However, there are groups of people in the Balkan region with enough support and strength to take the fight to the powers that be. The petition asking banks to stop investing in the destruction of Europe’s last wild rivers has now been signed by over 100,000 people, worldwide, and the documentary has been screened over 300 times in Europe alone – a figure that continues to grow as the requests for screenings flood in.

The take away for me in all this has been to really check my facts. I had been living in a dream world for a very long time regarding renewable energy, promoting hydropower as a beautiful baseload alternative to fossil-fuel derived sources of electricity. I had forgotten about the Balkan Lynx and detached the lives of people living along these wild rivers, only seeing them as a source of energy, rather than an everyday source of nourishment for many.

As surfers, wave-dancers, gut-sliders and the like, we are often much more distracted by what is happening out to sea and neglect what is happening behind our backs. If there is anything I have learned recently it is that everything really is connected and what happens upstream has consequences downstream.

If you have read this far then I have only one request - get to know your flow, bro.

Sign the petition here:

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