Tag Archives: dams and public participation

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The city of Itaituba on the banks of the Tapajós River. Image from wikipedia

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

Green Dams that Kill

Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala, image from wikipedia

A planned mega-dam in Guatemala, whose carbon credits will be tradable under the EU’s emissions trading system, has been linked to grave human rights abuses, including the killing of six indigenous people, two of them children.  Several European development banks and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) have provided funds for the $250m (£170m) Santa Rita dam.

But human rights groups back claims from the Mayan community that they were never consulted about the hydro project, which will forcibly displace thousands of people to generate 25MW of energy, mostly for export to neighbouring countries.  The issue has become a focus of indigenous protest in Guatemala – which has led to a march on the capital and severe political repression.

“At the moment our community is living under the same conditions as they did during the war,” Maximo Ba Tiul, a spokesman for the Peoples’ Council of Tezulutlán told the Guardian. “Our civilian population is once again being terrorised by armed thugs.”  Around 200,000 Mayans died or were “disappeared” during the civil war of the early 1980s, leading to the conviction of the country’s former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in 2013 on genocide charges.

Augusto Sandino Ponce, the son of a local landowner who community leaders allege worked as a contractor to Montt’s junta during the civil war, is at the centre of new accusations of human rights violations. Last April Ponce and his bodyguards allegedly opened fire on a Mayan community ceremony in which families asked the Earth for permission to plant their crops. One local man, Victor Juc, was killed and several were injured. Ponce reportedly claims he was acting in self defence…

In a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) clean development mechanism (CDM) executive board,  the People’s Council of Tezulutlán outlined a litany of human rights abuses in the region, including kidnappings, evictions, house burnings, attacks by men wielding machetes and guns, and the arrest of community leaders.  The council also says that an environmental impact assessment for the dam suggests that it would create a 40ft-high wall, flooding local communities and depriving them of access to water, food, transport and recreation.  In approving projects, the CDM board pursues a narrow remit focused on emissions reductions. The reign of terror in the Alta Verapaz region, falls outside it – as did similar events in Honduras….

Perhaps the most shocking incident took place on 23 August 2013, when two children were killed by an allegedly drunken Santa Rita hydroelectricity company worker looking for David Chen, a community leader in the Monte Olivo region.   Chen was meeting with the rapporteur of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights at the time. When the worker could not find him, he is said to have lined up two of Chen’s nephews, David Stuart Pacay Maaz, 11 and Haggai Isaac Guitz Maaz, 13, and killed them with a single bullet to one child’s head that continued through the throat of the other. The killer has since been killed himself.  The annual report of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights implicitly blamed the approval of the dam project for the killings….

Eva Filzmoser, the director of Carbon Market Watch said: “We want the CDM board to take responsibility and establish a grievance and redress mechanism for local communities to appeal, ask for problematic decisions to be rescinded and gain redress. We will be pushing for this at the Paris climate summit to apply to all forms of climate finance in the future.”Efforts to reform the CDM were boosted last month, when 18 countries signed a “Geneva declaration” calling for human rights norms to be integrated into UNFCCC climate decisions….Signatory countries to the declaration include France, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Uruguay and Peru.

Excerpts Green’ dam linked to killings of six indigenous people in Guatemala, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2015

The Price of Dams: Vietnam

Ya Ly dam spillway,Vietnam

Hydropower has boomed in Vietnam over the past decade and now generates more than a third of the country’s electricity. In 2013 the National Assembly reported that 268 hydropower projects were up and running, with a further 205 projects expected to be generating by 2017. They are helping to meet a national demand for energy that the authorities forecast will treble between 2010 and 2020. Other power sources are less promising, at least in the short run. A plan to build several nuclear reactors by 2030 is behind schedule, for example. And Vietnam’s coal reserves, mostly in the north, are not easy to get at.

Yet the hydropower boom comes at a price. Rivers and old-growth forests have been ravaged, and tens of thousands of villagers, often from ethnic minorities, displaced. Many have been resettled on poor ground. Those who have stayed are at risk of flash floods caused by faulty dam technology and inadequate oversight. Green Innovation and Development Centre, an environmental group in the capital, Hanoi, says shoddy dam construction is the norm, and developers ignore the question of whether their projects could trigger earthquakes…

Many hydro-electric companies are owned by or affiliated with Electricity Vietnam (EVN), the loss-making state power monopoly. Because hydropower is Vietnam’s cheapest source of electricity, EVN resists investing in measures such as dam-safety assessments that would further erode its financial position. As it is, even though environmental-impact assessments for hydropower projects are required, they are never published, according to the United Nations Development Programme….. Hydropower companies want to keep their mountain reservoirs as full as possible in order to generate as much electricity as Vietnam’s rivers allow. But that narrow focus can deprive farmers of irrigation in the dry season. And when heavy rains come in the summer and autumn, floodwaters cascade over the dam walls with little or no warning.

Hydropower in Vietnam: Full to bursting, Economist, Jan.10, 2015, at 35

The Building of Dams is not Up to Us

Ertan Dam China

Though the Chinese authorities have made much progress in evaluating the social and environmental impact of dams, the emphasis is still on building them, even when mitigating the damage would be hard. Critics have called it the “hydro-industrial complex”: China has armies of water engineers (including Hu Jintao, the former president) and at least 300 gigawatts of untapped hydroelectric potential. China’s total generating capacity in 2012 was 1,145GW, of which 758GW came from coal-burning plants.

An important motive for China to pursue hydropower is, ironically, the environment. China desperately needs to expand its energy supply while reducing its dependence on carbon-based fuels, especially coal. The government wants 15% of power consumption to come from clean or renewable sources by 2020, up from 9% now. Hydropower is essential for achieving that goal, as is nuclear power. “Hydro, including large hydro in China, is seen as green,” says Darrin Magee, an expert on Chinese dams at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state.

There is also a political reason why large hydro schemes continue to go ahead. Dambuilders and local governments have almost unlimited power to plan and approve projects, whereas environmental officials have almost no power to stop them.

The problems begin with the planning for China’s rivers, which are divided into fiefs by the state-owned power companies that build dams in much the same way as the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation divided up American rivers in the early 20th century. Though the staff of the water-resources ministry in Beijing know a lot about the environment, they have no say. “Big hydro projects are designed and approved by everybody but the ministry of water resources,” says Mr Magee.

Local governments, meanwhile, view dams as enticing economic development projects. The dambuilders, which have special privileges to borrow, put up the financing. The extra electricity supports industrial expansion and brings in revenues. Local officials are promoted for meeting economic performance targets and some collude for personal gain with the dambuilders. Because of the decentralised nature of the industry, local officials try to include dams in their plans. Once they have done so, they can expect the environmental impact assessments that follow to be a formality—if only because the consultants who undertake them are paid by the hydropower companies.

Environmental officials who have not been financially captured by the dambuilding economy find themselves as scarce as some of the fish they are charged to protect. Environmental activists, meanwhile, can request access to public records and demand public hearings, both required by law. But they say that these avenues are barred when they are most needed—on controversial projects that face vocal opposition. For example, the authorities have rejected requests for public records on Xiaonanhai and they have not granted a public hearing.

If environmental regulators and activists want any hope of halting a project, they must go outside normal bureaucratic channels to lobby powerful Politburo members or the national media. Although that may not always work, it did in 2004, when Wen Jiabao, then prime minister, halted construction of a cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River in south-west China in order to protect the environment. Even then some work on the projects still proceeded. Meanwhile, smaller schemes race ahead unchecked. Promoted by dambuilders and local governments, nearly 100 smaller hydroelectric projects in the Nu river region went forward without needing permission from higher up. Some began before they had even received the final approval.

China’s new leaders in recent months have signalled that they want yet more dams, approving several ambitious new projects, including what would be the highest dam in the world, on the Dadu river. After Mr Wen stepped down from his posts in the party and the government, the dams on the Nu river that he blocked received the go-ahead again.

Chinese leaders have for millennia sought to tame the country’s great rivers, which have sustained and destroyed countless lives with cycles of abundance, famine and floods. Indeed their legitimacy as rulers has long been linked to their ability to do so. The Communist Party has built thousands of large dams since 1949. China is also the world’s leading builder of big dams abroad; International Rivers, a pressure group, says that Chinese companies and financiers are involved in about 300 dam projects in 66 countries.

The politics of dam-building: Opening the floodgates, Economist, Sept. 21, 2013, at 47

Dams in Guyana: Blackstone, China and the Secretive Government

Amalia Project plan, Guyana, image from  Sithe Global

The government of Guyana wants to move forward with an $840m project at Amaila Falls, deep in the forested interior. At full capacity of 165MW, it could supply more power than Guyana’s present needs.  The lead developer is Sithe Global, part of the Blackstone Group. Sithe wants a guaranteed 19% return on its equity stake, and plans to start construction this year. China Railway First Group signed an engineering contract in September. The China Development Bank will lend most of the money. The Inter-American Development Bank has been asked to chip in $175m; the World Bank was initially involved, but has pulled out.

Amaila’s supporters point out that it will flood less than 55 square km (21 square miles). No villages will be displaced and little wildlife will be disturbed. Guyana would no longer rely on fossil fuels for electricity. After two decades, ownership would pass to the government, construction costs paid off.

Opponents worry that clean electricity will not come cheap. Guyana Power and Light (GPL), the state-owned electricity company, will pay about $100m a year to the Amaila consortium. Electricity bills are unlikely to fall (three people were killed last year in protests over electricity charges). And Amaila’s power may not be reliable. The El Niño weather pattern can bring a year-long drought. In normal years, the plant will run below capacity between October and April. GPL will have to pay for backup thermal power. The IMF has urged “careful consideration of the [financial] risks”.

Plans to build Amaila date from 1997, though Sithe only got involved in 2009. The estimated cost has risen steadily. An access road is unfinished. There is as yet no economic feasibility study for the project; when completed, the study will remain confidential, as is GPL’s outline power-purchase agreement. Opposition parties complain that the government is being “secretive” about Amaila. On April 24th they blocked funds for a government equity-stake in the project. If Amaila is as beneficial as its backers claim, an open debate might generate broader support for the project, and cut its $56m bill for political risk insurance.

Hydropower in Guyana: Shrouded in secrecy, Economist, May, 4, 2013, at 39

Dams in Brazil

Itaipu Dam border Brazil and Paraguay. Image from wikipedia

Some 20,000 labourers are working around the clock at Belo Monte on the Xingu river, the biggest hydropower plant under construction anywhere. When complete, its installed capacity, or theoretical maximum output, of 11,233MW will make it the world’s third-largest, behind China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.  Everything about Belo Monte is outsized, from the budget (28.9 billion reais, or $14.4 billion), to the earthworks—a Panama Canal-worth of soil and rock is being excavated—to the controversy surrounding it. In 2008 a public hearing in Altamira, the nearest town, saw a government engineer cut with a machete. In 2010 court orders threatened to stop the auction for the project. The private-sector bidders pulled out a week before. When officials from Norte Energia, the winning consortium of state-controlled firms and pension funds, left the auction room, they were greeted by protesters—and three tonnes of pig muck.

Since then construction has twice been halted briefly by legal challenges. Greens and Amerindians often stage protests. Xingu Vivo (“Living Xingu”), an anti-Belo Monte campaign group, displays notes from supporters all over the world in its Altamira office… But visit the site and Belo Monte now looks both unstoppable and much less damaging to the environment than some of its foes claim…

Brazil already generates 80% of its electricity from hydro plants—far more than other countries. But two-thirds of its hydro potential is untapped. The snag is that most of it lies in untouched rivers in the Amazon basin. Of 48 planned dams, 30 are in the rainforest. They include the almost completed Jirau and Santo Antônio on the Madeira river, which will add 6,600MW to installed capacity. But it is Belo Monte, the giant among them, that has become the prime target of anti-dams campaigners.Opponents say that dams only look cheap because the impact on locals is downplayed and the value of other uses of rivers—for fishing, transport and biodiversity—is not counted. They acknowledge that hydropower is low-carbon, but worry that reservoirs in tropical regions can release large amounts of methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas.

In the 20th century thousands of dams were built around the world. Some were disasters: Brazil’s Balbina dam near Manaus, put up in the 1980s, flooded 2,400 square km (930 square miles) of rainforest for a piffling capacity of 250MW. Its vast, stagnant reservoir makes it a “methane factory”, says Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Amazonian Research, a government body in Manaus. Proportionate to output, it emits far more greenhouse gases than even the most inefficient coal plant.

But many dams were worth it (though the losers rarely received fair compensation). Itaipu, built in the 1970s by Brazil’s military government, destroyed some of the world’s loveliest waterfalls, flooded 1,350 square km and displaced 10,000 families. But it now supplies 17% of Brazil’s electricity and 73% of Paraguay’s. It is highly efficient, producing more energy than the Three Gorges, despite being smaller.

Of Brazil’s total untapped hydropower potential of around 180,000MW, about 80,000MW lies in protected regions, mostly indigenous territories, for which there are no development plans. The government expects to use most of the remaining 100,000MW by 2030, says Mr Ventura. But it will minimise the social and environmental costs, he insists. The new dams will use “run of river” designs, eschewing large reservoirs and relying on the water’s natural flow to power the turbines. And they will not flood any Indian reserves.,,,

The protesters’ legal challenge to Belo Monte is based on the claim that they have not been properly consulted, something the government denies. The constitution says that before exploiting any resource on Amerindian lands, the government must consult the inhabitants. But it is silent on how this should be done. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a similar clause in its Convention 169 on indigenous rights, to which Brazil is a signatory.  The government says that since no demarcated territories will be flooded, such formal protections do not apply. “We hold consultations about the projects we’re doing not because we have to, but because it is right,” says Mr Ventura. Between 2007 and 2010 there were four public hearings and 12 public consultations about Belo Monte, as well as explanatory workshops and 30 visits to Indian villages.

In 2011, in response to a complaint filed by Indian groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a halt to construction pending further consultation. That was “precipitate and unjustified”, said the government, refusing the request. The ILO has asked Brazil’s government for more information on how it intends to fulfil its legal obligations.

The legal uncertainty surrounding Belo Monte is bad for both the Indians and contractors, says Mr Sales—not to mention Brazil as a whole. A draft law detailing how to consult indigenous people is expected by the end of the year. But before Congress legislates, ground is likely to have been broken on most of the new dams….

Belo Monte was given an initial budget of 16 billion reais, which had risen to 19 billion reais by the time of the auction. Norte Energia’s winning bid for Belo Monte offered a price of 77.97 reais/MWh. Since then, its budget has risen by a third.  Officials insist that the costs are Norte Energia’s problem. That looks disingenuous. The group is almost wholly state-owned. In November, the national development bank gave Norte Energia a loan of 22.5 billion reais—its largest-ever credit. If Belo Monte turns out to be a white elephant, the bill will fall on the taxpayer.

Dams in the Amazon: the Rights and Wrongs of Belo Monte, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 37

The War on Dams

amazon river satellite image

An Amazonian community has threatened to “go to war” with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders.  The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.  Public prosecutors, human rights groups, environmental organisations and Christian missionaries have condemned what they call the government’s strong-arm tactics.

According to witnesses in the area, helicopters, soldiers and armed police have been involved in Operation Tapajós, which aims to conduct an environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed construction of the 6,133MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam.  The facility, to be built by the Norte Energia consortium, is the biggest of two planned dams on the Tapajós, the fifth-largest river in the Amazon basin. The government’s 10-year plan includes the construction of four larger hydroelectric plants on its tributary, the Jamanxim.

Under Brazilian law, major infrastructure projects require prior consultation with indigenous communities. Federal prosecutors say this has not happened and urge the courts to block the scheme which, they fear, could lead to bloodshed.  “The Munduruku have already stated on several occasions that they do not support studies for hydroelectric plants on their land unless there is full prior consultation,” the prosecutors noted in a statement.

However, a court ruling last week gave the go-ahead for the survey. Government officials say that neither researchers nor logistical and support teams will enter indigenous villages. The closest they will get is about 30 miles from the nearest village, Sawré Maybu.  The ministry of mines and energy noted on its website that 80 researchers, including biologists and foresters, would undertake a study of flora and fauna. The army escort was made possible by President Dilma Rousseff, who decreed this year that military personnel could be used for survey operations. Officials say the security is for the safety of the scientists and the local population.

Missionaries said the presence of armed troops near Sawré Maybu village, Itaituba, was intimidating, degrading and an unacceptable violation of the rights of the residents.  “In this operation, the federal government has been threatening the lives of the people,” the Indigenous Missionary Council said. “It is unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to impose dialogue at the tip of a bayonet.”

The group added that Munduruku leaders ended a phone call with representatives of the president with a declaration of war. They have also issued open letters calling for an end to the military operation. “We are not bandits. We feel betrayed, humiliated and disrespected by all this,” a letter states.  One of the community’s leaders, Valdenir Munduruku, has warned that locals will take action if the government does not withdraw its taskforce by 10 April, when the two sides are set to talk. He has called for support from other indigenous groups, such as the Xingu, facing similar threats from hydroelectric dams.

Environmental groups have expressed concern. The 1,200-mile waterway is home to more than 300 fish species and provides sustenance to some of the most biodiverse forest habitats on Earth. Ten indigenous groups inhabit the basin, along with several tribes in voluntary isolation.  With similar conflicts over other proposed dams in the Amazon, such as those at Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antônio and Jirau, some compare the use of force to the last great expansion of hydropower during the military dictatorship. “The Brazilian government is making political decisions about the dams before the environmental impact assessment is done,” said Brent Millikan of the International Rivers environmental group.  “The recent military operations illustrate that the federal government is willing to disregard existing legal instruments intended to foster dialogue between government and civil society.”

Jonathan Watts, Amazon tribe threatens to declare war amid row over Brazilian dam project, Guardian, Aprl. 3, 2013

See also Resisting Dams, The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil