Michigan State University researchers, equipped with $3 million from NASA, will investigate innovative methods to improve dams so that they are less harmful to people and the environment.
Focusing on the Lower Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia, the world’s largest freshwater fishery and home to 60 million people, the three-year project will use the science of remote sensing and on-the-ground interviews with local residents to create better policies for future dams.
Dam building “is booming,” noted MSU’s Daniel Kramer. But generating enough energy for a growing population in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner, he added, has yet to be achieved.
“This project is really about trying to maintain this balance, to meet this goal of sustainability, where we can provide the food we need, the energy we need, without devastating the environment in the process,” said Kramer, professor of fisheries and wildlife and James Madison College and a co-investigator on the research.
With the project, which consists of two grants from NASA totaling $3 million, Kramer will collaborate with principal investigator Jiaguo Qi, professor of geography, and other scientists from MSU, along with researchers from Virginia Tech, Applied Geosolutions LLC in New Hampshire, and partners from countries in the Lower Mekong region.
The first grant will develop technologies to analyze the latest forms of satellite imagery – using active microwave technology – to understand the impact of dam construction on regional ecosystems.
Models calibrated with remotely sensed data will simulate historical water flows and project how those flows may change as a result of dam construction and shrinking glaciers in the Himalayan headwaters due to climate change.
The second grant will apply a social science approach through interviewing residents of communities surrounding and downstream from dams. The approach will focus on the community tradeoffs resulting from dams, such as economic benefits and the loss of wetland areas.
“The second project is investigating from the bottom-up how these changes are affecting people in depth using ethnographic and participatory methods,” Kramer said. “Then, we use this understanding and marry it to our typical satellite imagery approach to better understand these changes.”
Ultimately, he said, the project aims to not only reduce dams’ negative impact on surrounding communities and ecosystems, but also to generate insights to improve the planning of future dams.
“This effort serves to understand what the downstream effects of dams might be, with the hopes that we can apply this knowledge more generally to other places that are also seeing this rapid construction of dams,” Kramer said.