Right after the new year, works on the Belo Monte dam on the Amazon’s Xingu River in Brazil started. This is supposed to become the third largest dam in the world and one of the biggest construction project in Latin America. Developed by Norte Energia, a consortium controlled by the state-owned company Eletrobras and made of more than 10 of the largest construction companies as well as several investments funds, this project aims to guarantee energy security in Brazil.
Considering our growing energy dependence that characterizes the era we are living in, should local communities feel reassured by such a statement? And, most of all, is that all everyone should know about this huge intervention?
Someone could simply say that it’s worth investing in clean and renewable energy sources. That’s correct! I’m not complaining about it, I’m just wondering whether these two adjectives – clean and renewable – were exhaustive to define the energy we can generate by hydropower.
Let’s consider a few more aspects. It’s worth remembering that hydropower energy is based on the process of turning the kinetic energy in the flowing water into electricity. Basically, water collected in a reservoir flows through a turbine that starts spinning and in turn activates a generator to produce electricity. In this process, the storage of water, in the above mentioned reservoir, is made possible through the construction of a dam. And that’s the key point of this issue. What are the consequences brought by building a dam?
I’ve read several articles on the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, some very recent, others quite dated, and what strikes me the most is that I feel like I already know this story. In fact, looking at the long project approval process for building the dam, whose idea was first proposed in the 1970s, and considering the looming environmental risks as a consequence of this huge construction together with socials stresses due to displaced people from the area of intervention, I immediately think of the Three Gorges Dam in China.
During my studies at Oxford Brookes University, I was asked to do develop a humanitarian project in whatever area that I had to agree with the rest of my group work. We eventually decided for the biggest dam ever built in the world: the Three Gorges Dam. Particularly, we focused on the social impacts of this intervention and, most of all, on the vulnerability of the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). It is estimated that 1.4 million people have moved from the affected area since 1990, and that this number is expected to rise until 5.4 million people by 2020. The majority of them have contributed to increase the population of the closest urban centre: the city of Chongqing. However, moving from rural areas and having lost all their livelihoods as a consequence of the dam’s construction, they lack even the basic skills that would allow them to survive in an urban context.
Besides the social impacts, it worth mentioning some of the environmental ones like loss of biodiversity, frequent landslides due to rising waters and sidewall erosion resulting in the annual depositing of an estimated 40 million tops of sediment into the Yangtze river and landslides causing mini tsunami-like waves on the captured reservoir. If we compare the above-mentioned aspects to what is now happening on the Amazon’s Xingu River in Brazil, we can easily identify many similarities between the two dams. Of course, we can’t confirm that what happened in China will occur the same way in Brazil. However, complaints on the dam’s projects are focusing on the same issues. So why are we repeating the same mistakes?
In my opinion the problem lies in the narrow-minded approach usually applied by the majority of the decision-makers who live in our profit-driven society. At this subject, Pavan Sukhdev, Founder-CEO of the environmental consulting firm called GIST Advisory, made an interesting point by saying that we should ‘put a value on nature’. In fact, if we had to pay for the true value of the many resources that we are now taking from nature on a daily basis, then we would certainly be much more careful about what we do. In this context, the case of dams’ constructions is emblematic. What’s the real cost of the environmental damages that follow such interventions? As Oscar Wilde said ‘These days man knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing’.