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Residents rest in front of a flooded establishment at a village in Sanamxai, Attapeu province on July 26. Rescuers battled fresh rains on July 26 to reach scores of people still missing after a dam collapse in southern Laos that unleashed a torrent of water, washing away whole villages and killing at least 26 people. NHAC NGUYEN / AFP / Getty Images

A dam in Laos collapsed Monday following heavy rains, killing 26, leaving thousands homeless and confirming worries expressed by environmental groups over the safety of hydroelectric development in one of Asia's poorest countries, Al Jazeera reported.

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The Tucuruí dam as seen from the air. Bruno Huberman courtesy of Repórter do Futuro / Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Salisbury

Mega-dam construction is booming around the world, with promoters hyping hydropower as a green, renewable source of energy and a means of curbing climate change.

But as these dams are built in the Amazon, Mekong and elsewhere, they're doing great environmental and social damage and their green credentials are no longer adding up.

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International Rivers

An attempt by President Dilma Rousseff to eliminate 86,288 hectares of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon (equivalent to the area of 161,178 football fields) to make way for five large hydroelectric dams has been challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court by Federal Public Prosecutors (the Ministério Publico Federal or MPF). The MPF alleges that the Provisional Measure (Medida Provisória) signed by Rousseff in early January violates the Brazilian Constitution and the country's environmental legislation.

According to head prosecutor Roberto Monteiro Gurgel Santos, the majority of the proposed dam projects lack environmental impact studies. As a result, there is no certainty whether the dams will be constructed, and if so, in what location that would minimize their negative impacts. Hence, reducing the boundaries of protected areas to make way for dam reservoirs, prior to carrying out environmental impact studies, is both ludicrous and illegal. Economic viability studies for the proposed dams have also not been carried out.

"The Provisional Measure signed by President Rousseff signals a growing tendency within the federal government, already visible with the Belo Monte Dam, to blatantly disregard human rights and environmental legislation in the rush to construct over 60 large dams in the Amazon," said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director at International Rivers. "This shows that the president is backtracking on Brazil's environmental commitments, and will use any means necessary to push through an agenda of expensive mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon, reminiscent of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. It begs the question, who will protect the Amazon and the rights of its people, if not the government?"

If the Provisional Measure is not overturned by the Supreme Court, it still needs to be ratified by both houses of Congress to enter into law. In Para State, the Provisional Measure would eliminate a total of 75,630 hectares in five conservation units to make way for the reservoirs of two large proposed dams on the Tapajós river—São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá. The areas that would have their boundaries reduced include the Amazonia National Park (17,800 hectares), the Itaituba 1 and Itaituba 2 National Forests (7,705 and 28,453 hectares, respectively), Crepori National Forest (856 acres), and the Tapajos Environmental Protection Area (19,916 hectares).

In the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, 8,470 hectares would be excluded from the Mapinguari National Park so they could be flooded by the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams on the Madeira River. Additionally, 2,188 acres would be excluded from the Campos Amazônicos National Park to make way for the reservoir of the proposed Tabajara hydroelectric dam on the Machado River, a tributary of the Madeira River.

According to a document submitted by the Rousseff administration to the Brazilian Congress, the reduction of protected areas was proposed by the federal environmental agency, ICMBio. However, internal memos reveal that local staff of ICMBio—who are responsible for the management of protected areas in the Tapajós region—expressed direct opposition to the proposal. According to them, the reduction of protected areas, in the absence of socio-economic and environmental assessments of impacts and risks, is likely to cause tremendous damage to the region's biodiversity, including endemic and endangered species, and to the livelihoods of local populations.

Raione Lima, regional coordinator of the Movement for Dam Affected People (MAB) in Itaituba (Pará state) argues that "the government's attempts to reduce the size of conservation units on the Tapajós river shows that it is catering to the interests of large construction contractors, mining interests, agribusiness, commercial loggers and other members of the local elite, at the expense of biodiversity and the rights of indigenous communities and other local populations."

The São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá dams are the first of seven large dams proposed by the parastatal energy company Eletronorte for construction along the Tapajós River and its main tributary, the Jamanxim River. The reservoirs of five additional dams (Chacorão, Cachoeira do Caí, Jamanxim, Cachoeira dos Patos, and Jardim de Ouro) would inundate a total of 165,324 hectares in two national parks, four national forests and the Mundurucu indigenous territory. Recently, the Mundurucu tribe denounced Eletronorte's plans to build the Chacorão dam, slated to flood 18,721 hectares of indigenous lands, as a "criminal act" that demonstrates an "absolute lack of concern of the federal government with the rights of the indigenous people of Brazil."

For more information, click here.

International Rivers

Major construction on the Belo Monte Dam commenced on the Xingu River during Brazil's New Year holidays, signaling a new phase in the Brazilian government's intentions to sidestep environmental legislation and human rights conventions to build the world's third largest hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon. The project's first blockades of the river, known as coffer dams, are being built to dry out a stretch of the river, allowing for its permanent damming. Local protestors paralyzed construction at the dam site Jan. 18, affirming that resistance to the project is far from over.



The protests centered on Belo Monte's Pimental work site, where protestors denounced "unprecedented crimes" of the Brazilian government against the Amazon and its people. Organized by the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (Xingu Forever Alive Movement)—a grassroots coalition of social movements, indigenous groups, and NGOs—the protest included fishermen, farmers, students and other groups that are suffering the impacts of the Belo Monte Dam project.  



The protestors arrived at the dam site by boat, unfurling banners in front of the coffer dams with slogans such as "Belo Monte—crime of the Federal Government," blocking the movement of workers and machinery, and paralyzing construction for more than two hours. The protestors spoke peacefully with construction workers, explaining the motivations for the protest.

"Despite the criminal operations that are Belo Monte, where the Brazilian government is spending billions to devastate the Xingu while creating a situation of complete chaos among local communities, we will continue to resist this monstrosity and work to call attention of the Brazilian public and the world that this wanton destruction of the Amazon will hurt us all," said Antônia Melo, coordinator of the Xingu Vivo movement. "To take away the river is to take away the life of its people, because water is life." 


The first of three coffer dams, which are earthen walls built to dry out stretches of the river to open the way for dam construction, will connect the left bank of the Xingu to Pimental Island in the middle of the river. The Norte Energia (NESA) dam-building consortium has also begun to raze the jungle on the island after receiving authorization from the federal environmental agency IBAMA to clear cut more than 5,000 hectares of rainforest.

Local residents were not previously informed by the government-led NESA consortium of the impending construction of the coffer dams, initiated soon after the New Year. Instead, they were alerted by a Xingu River tinged with red mud and the thundering of dynamite exploding in construction areas. 


"When we learned what they were doing, it practically killed us with sadness," said Josinei Arara, a member of a threatened Arara indigenous community 10 miles downstream on the Xingu from the Pimental dam site. "The dam builders have kept none of their promises to compensate our village. In they meantime, they're assassinating our river." 



Outraged with the muddying of water they rely upon for drinking, cooking, and bathing, the Arara denounced NESA's pollution of the river to Brazil's Federal Public Ministry this week, also citing the clear deficiency of legally-mandated mitigation measures. 


If construction continues, the Belo Monte Dam complex will divert 80 percent of the Xingu River's flow into an artificial canal and reservoir, devastating a riverine ecosystem of unique beauty and biodiversity, as well as the livelihoods of three indigenous tribes and other traditional communities.

"The building of coffer dams, traversing one of the main channels of the Xingu, is already a major intervention in the riverine ecosystem," said Brent Millikan of International Rivers. "Besides destroying habitats and interfering in the river's hydrology, coffer dams create obstacles for local boat transportation and the movements of fish."

The Rousseff administration has remained obstinate in pushing ahead with Belo Monte, ignoring criticisms from scientists, legal experts, religious figures, artists and street protests throughout Brazil and the world. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, linked to the Organization of American States, was scoffed by the Brazilian government when it issued precautionary measures issued by the to ensure consultations with indigenous peoples and protection of their rights. Meanwhile the Rousseff administration has pressured judges to stall or overturn legal actions against Belo Monte, while intimidating federal public prosecutors that issued them. The Belo Monte Dam is one of the first of dozens of large dams planned for construction in the Amazon by the Brazilian government.

For more information, click here.

International Rivers

Vale—the world's largest iron-ore mining company and part owner of the Belo Monte Dam—is up to win the Public Eye Award, given annually to the corporation with the most dismal record in the world in terms of social and environmental responsibility.

Vale owns a 9 percent stake in the consortium that is building the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon. If construction continues, Belo Monte will cause the forced displacement of more than 20,000 people, flood 668 sq km of the Amazon rainforest, and dry out 100 kilometers of the "Big Bend" of the Xingu River, with devastating consequences for the indigenous and other traditional communities living in the region.

Vale wants to use electricity from the Belo Monte Dam to power the expansion of its Carajás Mines—the world's largest iron mines. Vale has a long record of human rights abuses in Brazil and 38 other countries around the world—including Mozambique, Canada, Perú, Indonesia and Argentina.

Help vote for human rights, corporate accountability and the Xingu River. To vote for Vale as the 2011 World's Worst Corporation, and for more information on the Public Eye Award, click here.

Visit the International Rivers website to learn more about Vale's involvement in the Belo Monte Dam and its history of social and environmental rights violations across the world.

For more information, click here.

International Rivers

By Katy Yan

Durban is over, the delegates have all either gone home or are enjoying the sunny South African weather, and serious actions to curb rising emissions have again been shunted down the road. However, progress is being made on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)—albeit slowly—to address some of its most serious flaws, including how to deal with non-additional, "hot air" projects in the world's largest emissions trading scheme, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

A recent European Union (E.U.)-commissioned report states that the European Commission should consider barring international offset credits from some large hydropower projects within the EU ETS. This report follows another study from U.C. Berkeley, which found that more than 20 percent of all carbon credits under the CDM could come from business-as-usual large hydropower projects rather than truly renewable projects made possible only by carbon credits. The ban on large hydro, along with other dirty projects like fossil fuel power stations, is gaining traction in the media and among some insiders, including a former CDM board member, who said in November, "I find it somewhat difficult to believe that for projects that cost more than $50-100 million, the CDM plays a crucial role to invest or not to invest," citing transport and waste-heat recovery projects. The board member said he had similar concerns about hydro and fossil fuel power station projects above 50mw.

In a statement published alongside the E.U. report, the E.U. executive's climate department says it will wait for the results of a review of the CDM being carried out by the scheme's executive board before deciding whether to introduce further restrictions. Let's hope the E.U. takes the results of all these studies seriously.

Below is the regular CDM update on all hydropower projects in the CDM pipeline. This is an update for the second half of the year (3rd and 4th quarters).

Update:

  • The overall number of CDM projects rose significantly in 2011, but the percent that was hydro decreased in the last quarter.
  • The percent of registered projects that were involved in the review process—10 percent in 2005, 9 percent in 2006, 19 percent in 2007, 57 percent in 2008, 70 percent in 2009, 40 percent in 2010, and 8 percent in 2011 (as of Dec. 1, 2011).
  • Fifty-six percent of all hydro projects in the CDM pipeline have been registered since 2004.
  • The largest number of hydropower projects were registered in 2010.
  • Hydro projects continue to be the most prevalent type of project in the CDM pipeline (26 percent of all projects), with wind at a close second. Seventy-one percent of credits expected from hydro projects come from China.
  • Credits expected to be generated by large hydro (≥15 mw) by 2012 represent 16 percent of all credits expected to be generated by 2012. Reduction of refrigerant gases like hydrofluorocarbons still represent the largest project type (more than a quarter).

For more information, click here.

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