Hydropower systems in high mountain areas need to be better adapted to climate change: NUS study

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SINGAPORE – Water-based power generation, one of the world’s largest sources of renewable electricity, is under increasing threat in the Himalayan Mountains and nearby ranges due to disasters related to the climate change.

Many new hydropower projects are planned near glaciers or high-altitude glacial lakes – which are vulnerable to global warming.

Better adaptation measures and more robust planning and monitoring systems are urgently needed, according to a new study led by the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Known collectively as High Mountain Asia, this region has the largest reserves of water in the form of ice and snow outside the polar region.

Its glaciers, which provide drinking and agricultural water, also represent largely untapped hydroelectric potential.

There are more than 650 hydropower projects under construction or planned in the Himalayan region, with the hydropower potential of the Asian high mountain region exceeding 500 gigawatts of power, enough to power more than 350 million homes.

But only about 20% of the potential estimated at 500 GW has been exploited so far.

Dr Dongfeng Li, lead author of the study and a researcher in the NUS Department of Geography, said the study was prompted by recent hydropower plant outages in the Himalayas.

The team wanted to study the link between these mountain hazards and climate change.

In February last year, an avalanche hit a Himalayan glacial valley in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India, causing a cascade of debris and disastrous flooding that washed away two hydropower projects.

Conducted in collaboration with scientists from countries including Britain, Nepal and Australia, the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience on June 23, recommended climate-resilient hydropower systems in areas of high Mountain.

The study found that melting ice systems induced by global warming are dramatically changing the volume and timing of Asia’s water supply from the high mountains to areas downriver, which people depend on for food. and energy.

Building more reservoirs to regulate river flows and generate hydroelectricity is an essential part of strategies to adapt to these changes.

However, these adaptation projects themselves are vulnerable to a complex set of interacting processes, including melting glaciers, thawing permafrost leading to landslides, and debris flows and flooding of glacial lakes.

These processes can mobilize large amounts of sediment, which then fills reservoirs, causing dams to break and degrading power turbines.

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