Saturday, 24 April 2010

Amazon: target of century 21 hydroelectric expansion

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Government intends to "offer" 16 large dams for concession over the next four years

Itaipu Plant's transmission towers were knocked over by wind gusts. Balbina Plant is rendered inoperative by draught. Power rationing affects both industry and dwellers' daily shower in São Paulo. There's blackouts and chaos. Rest assured, however, because the government intends to increase available power. Over the next 20 years, whether you live in Porto Trombetas or in Porto Alegre, your home will sparkle with the power yielded by the Hydroelectric Power Plants to be installed in the Amazon watersheds.

Let us backtrack ten years. Do you remember Tuíra, the indomitable Kayapó woman who challenged with her machete the representative (and present CEO) of Eletronorte, Antônio Muniz Lopes? "No dams," said she. Cararaô, the $7.5 billion 11,000 MW dam whose construction on the Xingu river was rebutted by Tuíra, Sting and the international media is back under the sweeter handle of "Belo Monte" (Beautiful Hill, literally). This will be one of the 16 large Amazonean dams that the Brazilian government wishes to offer as concessions over the next four years to private companies. "This doesn't mean that the projects will be built," says Alexandre Accioly, media advisor to Eletronorte. "Tendering bids and commissioned studies may take 15 years or more. Saying that so many dams will be built in the Amazon was the great lie of the 80s."

All that notwithstanding, since most sites of greater hydroelectric power in the Brazilian South, Southeast and Northeast are already being explored and since Brazil depends on hydroelectric power plants for the production of over 90% of its power, the vision of thousand of squared kilometers of Amazonean forests and marshlands rotting under stagnated water can become reality. By the late 80s, the cancellation of a World Bank loan to the power industry and the squalor of Brazilian economy delayed the Brazilian government's ambitious plan to expand its hydroelectric power generation. Now, according to the National Department of Water and Power (DNAEE), 12 out of the 14 plants rated at over 450 MW whose tendering bids will be opened in the next four years will be built in the Tocantins / Araguaia, Xingu, Trombetas and Tapajós rivers.
"We expect a more adequate, non-emotional process as was done," states Eduardo Alberto Larrosa, general coordinator for concessions at DNAEE. He highlights that concessions will be offered for tendering only after the Environmental Impact Report is completed.

The Big Line

The key issue which will make the hydroelectric power plant network feasible in the Amazon is the construction of a 1,020 km transmission line, connecting the North system in Imperatriz with the South system in the Serra da Mesa. This connection will afford the power generated in the Amazon to come to the industrial and population centers of the Southeast and South. The "big line" whose budgeted cost is $900 million will be granted a $300 million loan from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB).

IDB acknowledges that the construction of the "big line" will entail the construction of dams in the Tocantins river. Presently Tucuruí, in the lower Tocantins, and Serra da mesa, approximately 1,000 km upstream, are the sole artificial barriers which break the natural river flow. Add another seven new dams in the Tocantins, plus another three dams in the Araguaia (a tributary of the Tocantins) -- all this a part of DNAEE's expansion plan -- and the Tocantins will become a great water stairway, storing and pumping water according to power demand conditions, which will turn the most powerful Eastern Amazonean river into a water drip.

Self-producers and independent generators will be new main investors for new power generation in the Amazon -- that is to say, mining and ore processing corporations, selling off the power leftovers from their plants to the national network.

Will domestic construction engineering companies or multinational corporations like Alcan and Alcoa be more effective than state corporations in forecasting and mitigating social and environmental impacts of these enormous ventures? Basing on the experience of 25,000 people expelled from their lands and other thousands who can no longer live off fishing in the dead waters of the Tucuruí power plant spillway flow, private companies will not be much worse. However, who's to ensure that disasters such as the Serra da mesa hydroelectric power plant will not be repeated in the future? This dam was approved in a quick manner and its licensing was quite irregular, and the company in charge for the rescue of threatened animals opted for killing off thousands of them while the reservoir was flooded.

All of these forecasts for new dams are very optimistic. The new economic crisis is threatening once again to slow down the power demand jack-up and the flow of capitals for great infrastructure projects. However, the powerful alliance between construction engineering companies and mining corporations with equipment vendors headquartered in Europe and in the United States, where power dams lost their prestige and are now considered as an expensive, environmental-hostile technology will beat a path towards a new network of hydroelectric dams in the forest.

Only by way of a broader debate about future alternatives for the Brazilian power future it will be possible to prevent the 21st century to go down in history as the era of drowning the Amazon.

Glenn Switkes is a journalist and director of the Latin American Program of the International Rivers Network, headquartered in California, USA

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