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Reducing Dam Impacts and Costs by Thinking of the Land Above the Dam

Satoru Ueda's picture

In the World Bank we often discuss how important it is to integrate solutions across sectors. In Mombasa, Kenya, we have an example of how a comprehensive sediment management approach will allow the government to lower the environmental impact of a proposed dam and save tens of millions of dollars by reducing the amount of sediment that the dam traps. When too much sediment is trapped in a dam, the lifespan of the dam is shortened considerably so reducing sediment is key for long-term success.

The government was considering a design of a dam to provide drinking water to the city of Mombasa and irrigation and drinking water services to people living near the dam site. The proposed dam was planned for 87m high and It was designed to store almost double the mean annual river flow (105 million cubic meters per year). But about 40% of it was dead storage (water that cannot be drained by gravity through the dam's outlets or spillways) needed mainly to store sediment.

The Bank asked a sediment expert to investigate other ways to handle the sediment to see if such a large amount of dead storage was necessary. He gave options for managing sediment in a more comprehensive manner and for operating the reservoir differently. As a long-term measure, watershed management involving soil conservation and catchment restoration can reduce erosion and sediment inflow to the reservoir. Operational options, such as flushing, sluicing, dredging, and hydro suctioning can reduce sediment deposit in the reservoir. In response to the consultant's guidance, the government and their consultants came up with a design that incorporated catchment management, small dams called check dam to catch sediment, and newly-added bottom outlets to allow sluicing and flushing.  The new design also included business opportunities for local people to sell the captured sediment as construction materials.

The new design reduced the amount of dead storage needed considerably.  Incorporating the catchment and dam operation options into the project gives the same amount of active storage as the original design from a dam 10m lower. The new design has total storage of 119 million cubic meters (60% of the original design). Only 17% of the dam now needs to be allocated to dead storage. Along with this, the consultant team re-evaluated the type of dam, and what was to be a rock-fill dam could now change to a concrete gravity dam, with a number of advantages: the spillway, which controls the release of flows from a dam, can be incorporated into the concrete dam body, arrangements for flow diversion during construction can be much less complex, local construction materials can be used and the bottom outlets needed for flushing the dam can be added. So overall, that gave the government a smaller dam, smaller area inundated, and the same benefits at lower cost. The figures are still being checked, but current estimates are that these changes have reduced the estimated construction costs by almost 25% or approximately USD 50 million. 


Submitted by Harimao on

This is an interesting report on the sedimentation issue in designing a dam. In general, there are four main approaches to address sedimentation in a dam: (i) watershed rehabilitation (Structural and non- Structural Measures; (ii)sediment flushing; (iii) sediment routing; and (iv) sediment removal and disposal. The author has selected (i) and (ii) approaches to reduce the size of the palnned dam. The issue of these approaches may be (i) effectiveness of sediment trap by check dams and catchment management and (ii) proper operation of sediment flashing to actually avoid deposition of sediment in the reservoir. If these are found to be successful, there will be a lot of opportunities to build a dama on sediment-laden rivers in the World.

Submitted by Gregory Ireland on

Hi Satoru,

I'm a power sector integrated resources planning researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

I found you listed in some project docs as the lead dam specialist for the potential proposed hydropower project that was part of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water joint project in South Africa.

I'm looking for details of what the potential size for the proposed upper dam is and hours of potential electrical energy storage for use in the turbines. This information could assist us in modelling the usefulness of the site in the electricity system of South Africa and suggestions for an operational strategy to control dam levels etc.

I hope you might be able to assist or refer me to someone who might have this information.


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