Climate graph of the week: World Weather Agency sounds the alarm at dams, power plants and nuclear power plants

Maps showing dams under climate-related hydrological risks (water scarcity and flooding) in three climatic and socio-economic scenarios up to 2050.

The world’s energy infrastructure is “significantly” at risk from climate change as extreme weather events threaten dams, thermal power plants and nuclear power plants, the World Meteorological Organization said this week.

In his latest report of the WMO said existing energy infrastructure is already “under stress” and that climate change is likely to have a direct impact on fuel supply, power generation and the physical resilience of existing and future energy projects.

The risk of flooding and drought was particularly emphasized. In 2020, 87 percent of the world’s electricity generation from thermal, nuclear and hydroelectric systems depended directly on the availability of water, the WMO said, but some of the plants are in areas with water scarcity.

The WMO said a third of thermal power plants that rely on the availability of freshwater for cooling are already in areas of water stress, as are 15 percent of existing nuclear power plants and 11 percent of hydroelectric capacity.

About a quarter of the world’s existing hydroelectric dams and almost a quarter of planned dams were located in river basins already at “moderate to very high risk” of water scarcity, the WMO said.

The results confirm a study published in the journal water Earlier this year on the flood and drought risk for hydroelectric power plants worldwide. It found that by 2050, 61 percent of all hydroelectric dams would be located in river basins at “very high or extreme risk of drought, flooding, or both.”

While only 2 percent of planned dams are in river basins with the highest flood risk, the study predicts that nearly 40 percent of the same group of dams would be in river basins with the highest flood risk.

The report models three scenarios, with the pessimistic scenario assuming a 3.5°C temperature rise by the end of the century and the optimistic scenario assuming a 1.5°C temperature rise. Global temperatures have increased by at least 1.1°C since the 1840s.

Jeffrey Opperman, one of the study’s authors and senior global freshwater scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, said even under an optimistic scenario of limiting global warming by 2050, there would be an increase in the risk of drought and flooding.

“We have to adapt if we want to be successful,” he said. “There’s a big difference between the optimistic scenario and the status quo or the pessimistic.”

“This underscores that there is a really big difference between going for ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions and actually meeting our targets and not doing so if we want to avoid disruption to our water or energy systems and our security,” Opperman said.

Countries with the highest existing hydroelectric capacity that are expected to experience the greatest increases in flood risk include Canada, Uganda, Russia, Zambia, Egypt, Ghana, Venezuela, China and India.

Countries with the highest existing hydroelectric capacity at risk of water shortages also include China and India, as well as Turkey and Mexico, and the US states of Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The “mega drought” sweeping the US Southwest is a recent example. Water levels at the two largest reservoirs fell to record lows in May this year, forcing the government to take unprecedented action to protect water and electricity supplies in seven states.

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Sharp drops in water levels at Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir near Las Vegas, and Lake Powell, upstream on the Colorado River, prompted federal officials to activate a drought emergency plan.

In the US, the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill provides $500 million over five years to fund levee safety projects and help shore up levees that could face increased flooding. US officials said the funding would help develop long-term resilience to drought and climate change.

In China, severe summer drought and record temperatures led to power outages as large hydroelectric-producing areas like Sichuan province struggled to meet electricity demands.

Companies including Toyota and Apple supplier Foxconn halted plant operations in the province after authorities said they would temporarily shut down power supplies to factories in a number of cities.

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Adam Bradshaw

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