Tag Archives: dams environmentalists

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

The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil: the need for a social pact

These dams [like the Belo Monte] harness the natural flow of the river to drive the turbines, so they do not require large reservoirs, and as a result, less land needs to be flooded – which means less of an impact on the environment and surrounding communities. However, it also means that during dry spells, they do not have the water reserves needed to continue generating electricity at a reasonable capacity.   “We are increasing the installed generating capacity, but water storage capacity has not grown since the 1980s,” which is a cause for concern, said Nelson Hubner, general director of the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency.  The “stored energy” represented by the country’s reservoirs has not kept up with demand, which will make it impossible to maintain the necessary supply of hydroelectricity during a drought year, warned Hubner at the Second Hydropower Summit Latin America, held May 9-10 in São Paulo.  The summit, organised by Business News Americas (BNamericas), a business and economy news service based in Santiago, Chile, brought together dozens of executives from both public and private companies in the sector. Many were highly critical of the model chosen for the country’s new hydroelectric power plants, which they believe will result in greater energy insecurity in Brazil.  “Future generations will demand compensation for the fact that biodiversity was decreased and reservoirs were not created” in current hydropower projects, predicted Jose Marques Filho, assistant director of environment and corporate citizenship at Companhia Paranaense de Energia, a power company run by the government of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná.

By renouncing the use of this “long-life battery”, as another summit participant described reservoirs, Brazil will need to build more fossil fuel-powered thermoelectric plants, which are more polluting but “are not under attack from environmentalists,” complained the hydroelectric dam constructors and their supporters.

Construction began in 2011 on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingú River in Brazil’s Amazon basin. A total of 516 sq km of land will be flooded for the project, but this is only 42 percent of the area that would have been flooded for the reservoir planned in the original version of the project, drawn up in the 1980s.  However, because of this smaller reservoir, the plant will only reach its total generation capacity of 11,233 megawatts during the brief rainy season when the river is swollen to its highest level. During dry spells, output will decrease significantly, since the flow of the Xingú can drop from 30,000 cubic metres a second in March and April to less than 500 cubic meters in a dry month like October.

“We have to get used to hydroelectric dams without large reservoirs because the environment demands it,” said Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of the Energy Research Corporation, which provides advisory services to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The Amazon region, where most of Brazil’s hydropower potential is concentrated, is primarily flat, which means there are few sites where water can be accumulated and stored without flooding large areas of forest, he explained.  Belo Monte, located at the end of a canyon, is one of these sites. A large reservoir there would flood two indigenous territories which are home to over 200 people. “That was a determining factor” for modifying its design and adopting run-of-the-river technology, Tolmasquim told Tierramérica.  This decision, however, did not spare Belo Monte from becoming the target of the most widespread opposition ever against an energy project in Brazil, with environmentalists, civil society activists, indigenous communities and even local soap opera stars and international celebrities joining forces to denounce its environmental and social impacts.

Tapping the rivers of the Amazon basin for energy production should begin “with smaller hydroelectric dams, with an output of around 500 megawatts,” said Goldemberg, a University of São Paulo professor who has headed a number of state-owned energy companies and was the national secretary of environment when the city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the Earth Summit in 1992…..

The conflicts that sometimes halt the construction of hydropower plants in Brazil pit a small local population of perhaps a few thousand people against a million people who will benefit from the electricity produced, but are far away and geographically scattered, commented Goldemberg.  What are needed are “good projects” that are transparent and attend to the potential social and environmental impacts. In addition, it is up to the government to “mediate and explain” to settle these conflicts, given the disproportionate ratio of opponents to beneficiaries of roughly “one per one hundred,” he said.

There are much more complex situations in Asia, where enormous numbers of people are affected because of the population density of countries like India, he added. Goldemberg learned a good deal about numerous cases like these as a member of the World Commission on Dams, which produced a report in 2000 detailing the damages caused by these projects and the requirements for their construction.

For those in the hydroelectric dam construction industry, the issue of the environment has become an obstacle to the expansion of hydropower in Brazil.  In the meantime, the wind power industry has experienced a significant boost, largely because their competitors in the hydropower sector have been unable to obtain permits from the environmental authorities for years, he observed.  According to Marques Filho of the Companhia Paranaense de Energia, overcoming this impasse will require a “social pact”, based on “a dialogue among all the stakeholders” that cannot be limited to environmentalists on one side and hydroelectric dam constructors on the other.

Excerpts, Mario Osava, Belo Monte Dam Hit by Friendly Fire, Inter Press Service, May 22, 2012