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7 Wild Rivers Under Attack by Hydropower Dams

Insights + Opinion

By Gary Wockner and Lydia Bleifuss

Hydropower, falsely sold to the public as a source of "green" or "clean" energy, is expanding at an alarming rate in many of South America's beautiful and ecologically pristine rivers.


In line with a global trend, many South American governments—backed by multi-national hydropower corporations, international financiers and profit-motivated corruption—continue to endorse hydropower developments as "renewable" sources of energy despite public opposition and dramatic negative environmental impacts.

Hydropower destroys rivers, often forces the relocation of local communities, increases the spread of vector-borne diseases, and disrupts local cultures and ecologies that have evolved together for thousands of years. Perhaps even worse, methane emissions from hydropower reservoirs are making climate change worse.

Here are seven incredible rivers flowing through South America that are currently threatened:

1. The Beni River

Beni River, Bolivia.Havelock13 / Deviant Art

The Beni River in Bolivia is a tributary to the Madre de Dios which flows into the Amazon. The Beni is threatened by the proposed Bala Hydropower Plant, which would be constructed in the Bala Gorge. The reservoir would flood up to 2,000 square kilometers, including a great portion of the Madidi National Park, jeopardizing tropical forests and biodiversity. Like many hydro developments in South America, the Bala's electricity production estimations are based off of limited hydrological data and accuracy is unreliable.

2. The Jondachi River

Jondachi River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Jondachi River in Ecuador is a tributary of the Napo Basin which flows into the Amazon. The "La Merced de Jondachi" hydroelectric project would divert the majority of the river's water, which provides world renowned whitewater paddling. Although Ecuador seeks energy independence, development of the Jondachi has been met with fervent resistance from organizations like Ecuadorian Rivers Institute. The massive hydroelectric dam would cause a dramatic decline in the local eco-tourism industry, in addition to ecological degradation, both of which contradict the developer's "clean" and "sustainable" energy platform.

3. The Maipo River

Maipo River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Maipo River in Chile, a whitewater destination and also Santiago's main source of drinking water, is threatened by an internationally financed hydropower tunneling system that is siphoning away the majority of the water of its tributaries—the Volcán, Yeso and Colorado rivers. The hydropower project has met sustained local opposition because it would cause drastic ecological shifts in the valley and has already caused groundwater contamination due to tunnel construction. The proposed electricity production is compromised by drought in the region and isn't reliable. Further, the electricity would be largely funneled to the private mining industry or exported to Argentina for profit.

4. The Marañón River

Maranon River, Peru.Gary Wockner

The Marañón River in Peru is the Amazon River's largest tributary. On the grounds of "national interest," the construction of approximately twenty internationally financed dams have been proposed. Four projects are currently in the permitting process, although none have begun construction. The projects—which would devastate the river's ecological health, fragment nutrient flow and flood local communities—are meeting increasing local, national and international opposition.

5. The Ñuble River

Ñuble River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Ñuble River of Chile runs through the Bío Bío Region and is currently slated for two hydropower projects. While the Chilean government claims the electricity is needed for public use, private mining corporations appear to be the biggest supporters of the projects. Beyond the The Ñuble's amazing scenery and sections of class III/IV whitewater opportunities are jeopardized, as are local farms that would be drowned. While some nearby agricultural communities once recognized the benefits of increased irrigation access the reservoir would provide, the realities of human relocation and an overwhelming focus upon energy production have generated increasing resistance to the developments.

6. The Quijos River

Quijos River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Quijos River in Ecuador is a tributary of the larger Napo Basin. While one dam already exists on this river (named "Coca Codo Sinclair HPP"), several others are proposed that would slice this once wild and pristine river into an eviscerated tunnel and reservoir plumbing system. The government of Ecuador is endorsing these nationally and internationally financed projects, claiming they will provide "clean" and "sustainable" hydropower, while disregarding the unavoidable environmental degradation and negative social implications that have already started to take hold.

7. The Rocín River

Rocín River, Chile.

The Rocín River in Chile flows from the Andes in the Valparaiso Region. Northern Chile holds some of the largest copper deposits and thus mines, in South America. The privately funded and legally approved hydropower project planned for this river would provide electricity to those mines, which are also held by private companies. Due to the remoteness of the Rocín, relatively little attention has been focused on the development despite local community concerns regarding water access for agriculture and also contamination of both surface and groundwater from mining activities.

Almost all of these seven proposed hydropower projects in South America are being pushed forward to create electricity to be sent to private mining corporations or exported to nearby countries for profit. In most cases, the negative human and environmental consequences are being glossed over, and the "Environmental Impact Assessments" required by governments lack scientific rigor and integrity. Government corruption may also be playing a role as hydroelectric companies are rarely held accountable in permitting processes nor are they required to strictly follow national environmental laws.

Most projects are marketed to the public as "green" energy. In South America's tropical Amazon Basin, for example, methane emitting hydropower reservoirs have been measured to be bigger greenhouse gas polluters than coal-fired power plants of equivalent electricity production. International financial institutions and hydroelectric corporations that fund these projects are distanced from the problems they create, while they continue to push hydro development forward under the guise of "clean" energy mandates that resulted from COP21, the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

Layers of different preservation strategies are needed to guarantee any river's safety in South America, and fortunately there are groups who are working on creating and maintaining them. However, these river-protection movements are often isolated from each other and lack funding to help connect and promote their effectiveness. The seven cases above are but a sliver of the threats to South America's—as well as the world's—magnificent rivers. These threats are constantly expanding and shifting, and demand an urgent global response.

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