Proposed Hydroelectric Mega-Dam Project in Chilean Patagonia

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Imagine a place where everything is measured by its majestic beauty: where bountiful nature exists in a pristine, untouched form, and discovery and exploration are encouraged among some of the most primitive, remote communities and man co-exists with fertile valleys, snow-capped mountains, winding rivers and streams, magnificent glaciers, and a slew of unique forest ecosystems. This region is Patagonia, located at the southern tip of South America’s Chile and Argentina. Namely, Chilean Patagonia remains one of the few truly wild places on the planet.

However, this may prove false in years to come, as a multinational energy conglomerate seeks to choke two of the region’s most pristine rivers with mega-dams, and plans to wipe out some of the rarest lands in existence in order to build the longest transmission line in the world. The megaproject, HidroAysén, proposes to construct five dams in Patagonia’s most sparsely populated region of Aysén—specifically, two on Chile’s largest river, the Baker, and three on one of the most rapidly flowing river’s on the planet, the Pascua. This ongoing environmental, political, economic and social justice issue is critically important to address, as it exemplifies the consequences of big business fixation with mere extraction, while the conservation and restoration of nature and society are seemingly second-best.

Without a doubt, the Patagonian region of South America is a fragile landscape. Due to the fact that the HidroAysén project would consist of five total damswith generation capacities ranging from 360 to 770 MW and flooding of an area 3,600 hectares large, there are bound to be a wide range of environmental impacts (Ponce, Vásquez, Stehr, Debels, & Orihuela, 2011).

In general, when the fragmentation of free-flowing rivers by damming is under way, it leads to ecosystem isolation and alteration of aquatic life and riparian habitats as downstream flow of water and sediment modifies biogeochemical cycles and exchange. Geographically, according to Poff and Hart (2002), “these fundamental alterations have significant ecological ramifications at a range of spatial and temporal scales” (p. 660). In addition, with issues such as sediment buildup and natural flow variations frequently being off-kilter, dams require much maintenance, and become less effective in controlling floods, storing water and generating hydropower over time (Poff & Hart, 2002).

Therefore, the Aysén region of Patagonia’s river ecosystem health is in trouble if it does not increase its water-use efficiency through sustainable non-structural means.

Comparatively, with resources abundant in Patagonia’s extremely nutrient-rich waters, it is no wonder that people in Coyhaique, Chile, the capital of the Aysén region, live mainly by fishing and cattle ranching. With attention to the Baker River, development of these dams could destroy unstudied large areas through flooding, such as the ancient peat bog based on volcanic ash soils—and, markedly, these are important habitats for fish and vulnerable to the practice of “hydropeaking,” or flooding and draining a reservoir (Gaia, 2010).

In fact, Evelyn Habit, anative fish biologist at the University of Concepción (Cited in Gaia, 2010) explains that

All the important spawning areasare in the wetland zone of daily flood anddrop; if you lose spawning areas, you losethe species. It seems crazy to me to make such a big alteration to such pristine ecosystems, especially since, according to Habit, the Baker river contains a “unique population of fish that are endemic to Argentina. (p. 385)

Also under extinction pressures if the project continues are the Aplochiton zebra fish, the torrent duck, the Chilean river otter and the huemul, an endangered Chilean deer “of which less than 3,000 survive today” (Patagonia’s Rivers, 2011). Without a doubt, Patagonia’s rich biodiversity must be preserved in an effort to cherish the few as yet unstudied lands that many wild animal species call home.

On the other hand, not only is the HidroAysén project planning on constructing five hydroelectric dams that would flood 15,000 acres of the most productive agricultural land in the area, but it is also hoping to build “a 70-meter-high transmission line to transportpower more than 2400 kilometers north to Santiago, Chile’s capital, and the energy hungry mines beyond” (Gaia, 2010, p. 382). Unsurprisingly, citizens are not thrilled about it.

According to Randall (2011), 83% of Chileans believe HidroAysén will cause significant environmental damage, as the enormous power line would slash fourteen legally protected conservation areas. The scope of its impact is represented in the first map provided, where the proposed power line is visible as traversing the Baker and Pascua dam locations all the way up to Chile’s capital city of Santiago. Just north of the Pascua river lies the Baker river, as Symmes (2010) refers to as a “cold, intimidating snake that carves just 110 miles down through Aysén in a hard S, collecting glacial tributaries and raging at 30,000 cubic feet per second even in its headwaters” (p. 90).

In brief, the plans for damming and an enormous power line that would cross nearly half of Chile would prove detrimental to the well-preserved landscapes, not to mention the citizens of Aysén, who would not receive any power for local use.

Furthermore, tourism has brought sustainable income to the region for quite some time, as sport and fishing businesses thrive along with plenty of river-rafting opportunities, thanks to the some of the most accessible reserves of freshwater after Antarctica and Greenland, located in the Northern and Southern Patagonian ice fields (Symmes, 2010). However, the HidroAysén project would absolutely hinder the ecotourism industry’s growth and development. According to Kris Tompkins, founder of the North Face and one of the largest individual funders within Chile, “nobody is going to spend $2,500 to go down there and drive under high-tension wires for 500 miles. I wouldn’t” (Symmes, 2010, p. 93).

In the same way, the mesmerizing whitewater glaciers that visitors and native peoples revel at are another concern, seemingly coming to a head as global warming progresses. As described in Gaia (2010), glacial lakes in Patagonia often overrun their banks which sends surging melt water downstream, creating glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF’s) –and a large one is located right at the headwaters of the Baker River. Without a doubt, as the climate warms, the shrinking of glaciers occurs at a faster rate, and sediment dumps could cause the reservoir beds to rise and turbines to clog, not to mention increased flood levels.

According to Claudio Meier (Cited in Gaia, 2010), a hydrological engineer at the University of Concepción, “the GLOF analysis submitted inHidroAysén’s EIA was utter nonsense. Theylooked at water-level data for 1963 to 2007—less than 50 years—and extrapolated to obtain a 1-per-1000-year GLOF risk” (p. 383). For this reason, the project would leave Chile vulnerable to geology, as the region is already in constant danger of earthquakes due to the fact that it is sitting above the intersection of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates (See Fig. 1). Overall, Patagonia is limited by its geography, which must be considered by energy planners in order for extraction to be sustainable and economically viable.

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Fig. 1 Nazca Plate Dives under the South American Plate on the Western Coast of the Continent (Google Images)

Just as the environment could be severely damaged by the proposed project, the traditional livelihoods of the Aysén region’s remote peoples are at stake, as families would be displaced without question. One man native to the region, Arturo Quinto (Cited in Symmes, 2010), exclaimed, “Where they build dams, hell follows,” after the HidroAysén conglomerate offered him $500,000 for his pasture, to which he abruptly refused” (p. 90).

In truth, the mega-dam project would require about a decade of construction, which would mean a ton of workers would need to enter the region, possibly bringing along crime and vandalism – let alone all the new roads and infrastructure that would follow. In turn, these actions would disrupt Aysén’s traditional way of life considerably, where, according to Klinkenborg (2010), “on land the few homesteads look as though they were carved out of the 19th century.”

Above all, those who oppose the project have a clear mistrust of the government in terms of its motives and lack of information. For instance, one of the apparent goals of the project is to reduce Chile’s 96% dependence on foreign oil, yet critics believe that rather than looking to consumers, it is “simply a means to provide cheap electricity to mining companies” (D’Estries, 2012). Truly, people of Chile are coming together against the massive HidroAysén plans and will continue to fight until it is over for good in an effort to cherish their culture and lifestyles.

While legally the project should have been rejected from the get-go in 2008 due to insufficient data and conflicts of interest in the Chilean government,  political pressure caused an extension to address its problems. According to Patagonia’s River’s at Risk (2011), on May 9, 2011, an environmental review commission comprised of commissioners appointed by the pro-dam government approved the HidroAysén EIA by a vote of 11-1, despite much controversy and omission of critical data. Accordingly, due to the fact that HidroAysén is owned by two powerful Chilean families and “Italy’s biggest electric utility,” Enel-Endesa, private-sector partners, who would need to raise some serious money in order to move it forward, estimated at around $10 billion (Patagonia’s Rivers, 2011).

However, recent news from the summer of this year suggests that due to lack of government backing and negative media/protests taking their toll, HidroAysén’s future is not looking too bright. According to D’Estries (2012), “project partner Colbun electric suspended its environmental review citing lack of government backing, and majority partner Enel-Endesa also asked its board of directors to reconsider its involvement.” With risks outweighing benefits and lack of key information on socio-ecosystem functions, the HidroAysén project is slowly losing steam.

Excluding all of the plan’s flaws and shortcomings, Chile still must meet its energy needs if the future is to remain prosperous in these isolated regions of Patagonia and beyond. That is to say, learning and debating more about the costs and benefits of alternative energy solutions is necessary, because “absent of carbon-based, nuclear and hydroelectric energy sources, Chile would have to rely on wind, solar, and geothermal power,” as the country imports more than 95% of its fossil fuels (Randall, 2011).

In fact, according to Roberto Román (Cited in D’Estries, 2012), an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Chile, “In five to 10 years, solar options will be cheaper than HidroAysén.” In essence, dams are outdated technology, and with a multitude of sustainable options available in this region of South America with its sun-drenched deserts, bountiful winds and raging tides, there is no reason for Chile not to make the switch. In a study by Canadian and Chilean energy analysts, it was discovered that “Chile couldobtain the 3500 megawatts per year promisedfrom new Patagonian dams throughenergy-efficiency measures (3041 MW, theycalculate) and renewable energy development(4383 MW), and the total gain would betwice that generated from the Patagoniandams” (Gaia, 2010, p. 384). The mega-dam project is simply unnecessary.

In comparison, the Atacama Desert has being utilized in recent years for solar projects, and the state copper company is finally investing in wind. If HidroAysén acts similarly, its output could be “matched by four massive wind farms like the one’s in Horse Hollow, Texas” (Gaia, 2010, p. 110). In my opinion, if these big corporations continue to externalize socio-environmental impacts of the project and do not come up with adequate, specific data, it will be taken over. In addition, power rests with Chile’s new President Piñera, and it is his duty to step it up by providing environmental protection to these pristine ecosystems and consider the potential for renewables. With the help of the Patagonia Sin Represas movement (Patagonia Without Dams) and other strong national and international campaign activities along with countless documentaries and outreach organizations, there is strong potential for this burden of a project to be wiped out completely.

Throughout the last few years, the HidroAysén project has become a full-fledged issue that calls for action, and fast. Although nature is something that humans continue to view as everlasting, it, too, has a delicate life cycle that can erode away easily if not looked after. In order for Chilean Patagonia to remain one of the most magnificent areas on Earth, the project under scrutiny must address all social, environmental, economic and corporate issues to devise a happy medium where energy needs can be met and people may continue to prosper in their cherished, remote regions of South America.

Reference List

Chouinard, Y. (2012). Dammed if we Don’t. Patagonia environmentalism: Our common waters. http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=67738

D’ Estries, M. (2012). Patagonia rising’ documentary highlights Chile’s controversial HidroAysén Dam Project. Huffington Post.

Gaia, V. (2010). Dams for patagonia. Science 329 (5990), 382-385.

Klinkenborg, V. (2010). Patagonia’s peril. National Geographic.

Mugetti, A. C. & et. al. (2004). Aquatic habitat modifications in La Plata River Basin, Patagonia and associated marine areas.AMBIO: A Journal of the HumanEnvironment 33 (1), 78-87.

Patagonia’s Rivers at Risk. (2011). International rivers. http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/patagonia-s-rivers-at-risk-3394

Poff, N. & Hart, D. D. (2002). How dams vary and why it matters for the emerging science of dam removal. Bioscience 52(8), 660-663.

Ponce, R. D., Vásquez, F., Stehr, A., Debels, P., &  Orihuela, C. (2011). Estimating the economic value of landscape losses due to flooding by hydropower plants in the Chilean Patagonia. Water Resources Management; 25: 2449.

Randall, I. A. (2011). In Chile, explaining massive protests entails remembering the past. Dissent 58(4), 15-21.

Symmes, P. (2010). The beautiful and the dammed. Outside 89-110.