Stanford Natural Capital Project hydrologist Rafael Schmitt has won the 2021 Aspen Institute Italia Award for collaboration and scientific research between Italy and the United States. Schmitt will receive the award alongside his co-authors on a 2018 study in Nature Sustainability, which focuses on strategic ways to plan and build dams without causing irreparable damage to the environment.
The hydroelectric development of river basins is key to economic and social development of many countries. Major dams generate approximately one-sixth of the world’s electricity and provide irrigation water to one-seventh of farmlands. As in many parts of the world, dams in Southeast Asia’s Mekong basin are planned project-by-project, without thought for the collective impacts they cause on river systems. This can lead to lasting and irreversible damages to crucial river ecosystems.
The team paired a new mathematical model designed by Schmitt with policy analysis tools. Then, they analyzed opportunities for reducing the impacts of hydropower dams on rivers. “Using this framework, we wanted to highlight the strategic opportunities for building dams and hydropower while recognizing the environmental costs of poor planning,” said Schmitt.
They showed how decision-makers can use strategic planning to make choices that benefit ecosystems and economies. The strategy relies on open source software and global data to inform decisions. With this integrated approach, planners will be able to develop hydropower dams with much lower impacts than the current project-by-project system. These findings are especially significant given the 3,700 new major dams currently proposed worldwide.
The Aspen Institute Italia Award for scientific research and collaboration between Italy and the United States is awarded annually to a research project in the applied or theoretical natural sciences that is the result of collaboration between scientists or organizations in the two countries. The awardees will be recognized at a ceremony this coming June.
“My coauthors and I are honored to receive the Aspen Italia Award. We see great potential to mainstream this approach to entire water and energy infrastructure systems, which will be crucial for transitioning to a green economy. The award is a validation not only for our research, but for the real-world relevance of strategic planning for the health of people and our planet,” said Schmitt.