Editor’s note: Dams change the way rivers function and they impact water quality. Slow-moving or still artificial lakes heat up. This results in abnormal temperature fluctuations which affect sensitive species and lead to algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels. Organic materials build up behind dams and start to produce the perfect environment for carbon dioxide and methane producing microbes. Particularly, migratory species are badly affected by the presence of dams.
Although dams are being taken down in Europe and the US because people have begun to realize the dam-age they do to ecosystems, they are not coming down fast enough. Additionally, new ones continue to be built. At this point in the human caused ecological collapse of the planet’s life support systems, it would be best to leave dam building to the beavers.
The 1999 demolition of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River set off a wave of dam removals across the United States. Since then some 1,200 dams have come down to help restore rivers and aquatic animals, improve water quality, and boost public safety — among other benefits.
Across the Atlantic, European nations have been busy removing thousands of river barriers, too. But until recently the efforts have gone largely unnoticed, even among experts.
Pao Fernández Garrido can attest to that.
An engineer and expert in ecosystem restoration from Spain, Fernández Garrido was finishing her master’s thesis in 2012 when she attend a dam-removal training in Massachusetts that was part of a conference on fish passage.
She was floored to learn about the United States’ widespread dam-removal efforts and returned to Europe determined to learn what was happening with dam removals on the continent — and to be a part of the action.
So did Herman Wanningen, a freshwater consultant from the Netherlands, who also attended the conference. Fernández Garrido joined him when he founded the World Fish Migration Foundation in 2014. Soon after they helped form a coalition organization called Dam Removal Europe that also includes European Rivers Network, WWF, Rewilding Europe, the Rivers Trust, Wetlands International and the Nature Conservancy.
One of the first things Fernández Garrido and her colleagues wanted to know was the extent of river fragmentation on the continent. That wasn’t easy: While the United States has an exhaustive inventory of its 90,000 dams, not every European country, they learned, had collected similar data.
At the time not much was known beyond the fact that Europe had 7,000 large dams. But as their project to map river barriers, known as AMBER, got underway, they learned the on-the-ground reality included many smaller dams and other barriers — at least 1.2 million river barriers in 36 European countries.
Fernández Garrido and her colleagues spent more than three years on research, including river surveys in 26 countries, to gather the more robust data. Their results, published in Nature in 2020, found that on average river barriers occur almost every half mile.
Two-thirds of these barriers are under seven feet tall, but small doesn’t mean insignificant. Low-head dams and smaller obstructions like weirs and sluices can still block the movement of some fish, as well as aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the flow of sediment and nutrients.
Many of the dams — around 150,000 — are also obsolete and no longer provide any beneficial functions.
The good news, though, is that they also found that 4,000 European river barriers had already come down in the previous 20 years, with France, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom being the most active.
These efforts, though, had largely flown under the radar.
“Nobody was talking about these, nobody,” says Fernández Garrido. “The United States is celebrating that it has removed 1,200 and nobody’s celebrating in Europe because nobody knows.”
That’s changed as they continued with their work to compile research, organize supporters across the continent, and push policymakers for action.
In 2019 the researchers delivered a report on case studies of dam removals and their benefits to the European Commission. The following year the World Fish Migration Foundation published the first-ever Living Planet Index on the global state of migratory fish. It found that migratory freshwater fish populations in Europe had dropped 93% since 1970, much higher than the already dismal global average of 76%.
The cumulative weight of those findings may have had a big impact on policy.
“For the first time ever in history, it stated that we should free at least 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of river in Europe from barriers by 2030,” says Fernández Garrido.
While that was welcome news, it was still only a guideline — not legally binding.
In May 2022, however, the commission followed up with a proposal called the EU Nature Restoration Law. “In this law, they say we must start removing dams,” she says. And the proposed language calls for restoring 15,500 miles of river to a “free-flowing state by 2030.”
The European Parliament will need to ratify the law in the next couple of years. “In the meantime politicians could work to weaken it,” she says. “That’s why environmental groups are working hard to keep it strong.”
On the ground, the work to restore free-flowing rivers continues.
Last year 239 river barriers were removed in 17 European countries, including more than 100 in Spain. Finland is in the process of removing three hydroelectric dams on the Hiitolanjoki River, which will aid salmon populations. And France is home to the tallest dam removal on the continent yet, the 118-foot Vezins Dam on the Sélune River in Normandy, which was removed in 2020. Demolition began this summer on a second dam on the river, La Roche Qui Boit, which will allow the Sélune to run free for the first time in 100 years. Migratory fish populations like salmon are expected to return, and the dam removals will also reduce toxic algae that pooled in the warm waters of the reservoirs during summer.
Some of this work — and more — is showcased in a new documentary, #DamBusters, by director Francisco Campos-Lopez of Magen Entertainment. The film follows Fernández Garrido across Europe as she meets dam-removal heroes in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland.
“Restoring nature is probably the job of our time, our generation,” she says in the film.
“Construction to remove Centreville Dam” by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
But it’s a process that will also take time.
“There are some river systems, like for example in North America, where the benefits of dam removal are shocking and so amazing because that river system was only blocked for only 100 years,” she tells The Revelator. “But when you are talking about recovering our river systems in Europe that have been controlled and mismanaged for 500 years, 600 years, 1,000 years, we have to be cautious about what we expect.”
But even if ecological restoration comes more gradually, political movement has been swift.
“The progress since we started in 2016 until now — having policies proposed at the European level — it’s amazing,” Fernández Garrido says. “It’s really an achievement.”
The combination of research, policy reports, political pressure and movement-building have kickstarted a river restoration effort that shows no signs of slowing down — and could be a model for other regions.
Editor’s Note: Development projects have always destroyed local ways of living and nonhuman communities. Numerous examples attest to that. The government of Cambodia need not look very far. The Lower Sesan 2 dam it built despite resistance has collectively been decried by national and international organizations for numerous human rights and indigenous rights violations. The government of Cambodia itself placed a ten-year ban on damming Mekong in 2020. Despite this, the government has permitted the group responsible for Lower Sesan 2 to conduct geological studies for building the Stung Treng dam along Mekong river. Previous studies have already outlined the devastating effects it can have on the fisher communities.
It is no surprise that states prioritize profits over local communities in their decision making process. Organized political resistance is required for the local communities to stand a chance against such decisions that hughly impact their lives.
Cambodian authorities have greenlit studies for a major hydropower dam on the Mekong River in Stung Treng province, despite a ban on dam building on the river that’s been in place since 2020.
Plans for the 1,400-megawatt Stung Treng dam have been around since 2007, but the project, under various would-be developers, has repeatedly been shelved over criticism of its impacts.
This time around, the project is being championed by Royal Group, a politically connected conglomerate that was also behind the hugely controversial Lower Sesan 2 dam on a tributary of the Mekong, prompting fears among local communities and experts alike.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn is a fellow.
STUNG TRENG, Cambodia — A long-dormant plan to build a mega dam on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Cambodia’s northeastern Stung Treng province appears to have been revived this year, leaving locals immediately downstream of the potential sites worried and experts confounded.
First studied in 2007, the 1,400-megawatt hydropower project, known as the Stung Treng dam, has reared its head in many forms, only to be canceled or scrapped. Finally, in 2020, Cambodia’s government announced a 10-year ban on damming the Mekong River’s mainstream, placing the Stung Treng dam and others on indefinite life support.
However, on Dec. 29, 2021, Royal Group — arguably Cambodia’s largest and best-connected conglomerate — wrote to the government, requesting permission to conduct a six-month feasibility study across a number of sites along the Mekong in a bid to revive the long-sought-after hydropower project.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy approved, and Stung Treng Governor Svay Sam Eang ordered district governors to cooperate with SBK Research and Development, a Phnom Penh-based consultancy hired by Royal Group, while they analyzed three sites for the dam between January and June 2022.
All the sites that SBK analyzed sit within or would affect the Stung Treng Ramsar site, a wetland of ecological significance that’s supposed to be protected by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty to which Cambodia became a signatory in 1999.
Spanning some 14,600 hectares (36,100 acres), the Stung Treng Ramsar site stretches 40 kilometers (25 miles) up from the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong rivers, almost to the Laos-Cambodia border. It’s home to the white-shouldered Ibis (Pseudibis davisoni) and giant Mekong catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), both critically endangered species, and the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), which is globally endangered but whose Mekong population is considered critically endangered.
WWF’s Greater Mekong program then published an extensive brief in 2018 reiterating the threats posed by the Stung Treng dam to fisheries, agriculture, ecosystems and biodiversity.
By then, however, many of these fears had already been realized in the form of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam.
Also located in Stung Treng province, roughly 30 km (19 mi) from the Ramsar site, the Lower Sesan 2 was approved in 2012 before going online in 2018 after a tumultuous series of studies throughout the 1990s. Following funding issues, Royal Group stepped in as a financier to save the project, but this didn’t stop the Lower Sesan 2 from rapidly becoming emblematic of the numerous problems associated with dams on the Mekong and its tributaries.
Since the dam’s completion, Human Rights Watch has branded the Lower Sesan 2 “a disaster” in a 137-page report released last year, calling the dam’s developers responsible for multiple human rights violations, abuses against Indigenous peoples, and a drastic decline in fisheries, along with failing to actually live up to its projected power generation targets.
Haunted by the Lower Sesan 2, the residents of the Stung Treng Ramsar site’s islands were deeply concerned when they saw SBK Research and Development engaged in geological studies and learned the prospect of the Stung Treng dam had returned again.
“The local authorities came round at the start of the year,” says Mao Sareth, chief of the Koh Khan Din fishing community in the south of the Stung Treng Ramsar site. “They told us they want to build a dam that’ll be 7 meters [23 feet] high and will affect 163 families — it’s going to be huge, 1,400 MW, that’s what they told me.”
Sareth is reluctant to discuss the details of the proposed dam, hinting that people have warned him against discussing the project with journalists. But for the 72-year-old, the number of families who would be affected if the Stung Treng dam goes ahead would be much higher than what SBK’s consultants suggested, although the consequences for each island would vary depending on whether the dam was built up or downstream of their community.
“There are 144 families in our village alone, with plenty more spread across the islands and there are hundreds of islands here, full of people who farm and fish,” Sareth says. “Of course we’d be affected if they build the dam, lots of communities would be flooded, everyone relies on agriculture here, the dam would destroy our crops.”
Already at the mercy of water released or withheld by dams upstream in Laos, Sareth says his community exists in a fragile balance, eking out an existence that hinges on access to fish from the water and crops nourished by it. The Stung Treng Ramsar site’s ecosystem, he says, has held the community together, with only seven families leaving last year to find day-laborer work in Thailand.
“Most people try to stay and find a new market for their crops,” Sareth says. “They can take food from the river — they can survive here.”
But Sareth is no stranger to defeat at the hands of hydropower developers, and knows that if the government decides to break its own ban on Mekong dam building, then it will be his community that suffers.
“We protested the Don Sahong dam in Laos because we knew it would hurt our people, our livelihoods, but our protests made no difference — they finished the dam anyway,” he says. “Then we protested the Lower Sesan 2 dam, but again, it made no difference, we had no results, only losses. We lost so much when they opened the water gates, crops, livelihoods, everything.”
Dammed and damned
Meanwhile, 12 km (7.5 mi) further upstream, the ecotourism and fishing communities on the island of Koh Snaeng say they fear a way of life could be erased by new hydropower projects.
Fifty-two-year-old Lim Sai is one of the estimated 1,000 people living across the four villages that make up Koh Snaeng, which straddles the Mekong within the heart of the Stung Treng Ramsar site, roughly 30 km from the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam.
“In general, we know if we protest, we’ll face consequences, we know there’ll be problems — maybe even lawsuits,” Sai says. “You can get sued for speaking out, so if the government doesn’t see the dams as a problem, then ordinary people like us have no tools to affect our future.”
Sai is a lifelong resident of the island and has seen it adapt in the face of an uncertain future. Koh Snaeng residents pivoted from fishing to farming when the first dams further upstream in Laos and China began to change the flow of the river upon which the island is situated. Then, as the climate crisis intensified and Cambodia’s rains became less reliable, residents again shifted their focus, this time to ecotourism.
Throughout these changes, Sai has worked in local government. But despite this role, he says his community has been largely ignored by the national authorities.
“They [the national government] only built a road connecting National Road 7 to the ferry that brings people to Koh Snaeng last year, we’ve been asking for one for around decades,” he says by way of example. “Maybe it was because we had the commune elections coming up this year and they knew we wouldn’t support them.”
Sai says the island is still very much reliant on the river and that he feels the latest hydropower study hasn’t factored his community into the decision.
Residents from Koh Khan Din were invited to a meeting in the Cambodian capital where representatives of Royal Group discussed the matter of relocation and compensation in June, but Sai says he only found out about this through others.
“The dam would have a huge impact, not just here, but all the way down to Phnom Penh, even in Vietnam — it would affect the water flows all the way downriver,” Sai says.
Ma Chantha, 29, serves as the deputy of Koh Snaeng’s tourism community and says that when residents saw SBK’s consultants drilling samples from the riverbed earlier this year, they came to her with their fears.
“People are very worried, they think they’ll lose their houses to floodwaters or be displaced,” she says, noting that the community-based ecotourism project spans both Koh Snaeng and the neighboring island of Koh Han, with roughly 2,750 residents participating in the project since its inception in 2016.
“We hope the video and the campaign are successful, or helpful at least, in stopping hydropower construction here, because people will see that there are ecotourism destinations worth protecting here,” Chantha says. “This kind of advocacy has given the people here a chance to stand up for their communities, I hope that makes people change their mind about building the dam here.”
But while communities rally to stop the Stung Treng dam, there is little clarity over whether the project will go ahead. In March, government-aligned outlet The Phnom Penh Post reported that the dam had been “okayed in principle,” but offered little beyond the approval for the feasibility study to substantiate this.
Chantha and Sai of Koh Snaeng, as well as Sareth of Koh Khan Din, all agreed that they had been told in recent months that the project wouldn’t be going ahead, although none could provide any documents to verify this either.
“I’m happy if they really canceled it,” Sai says. “Then we can continue to use the river for fishing and tourism, but I only believe in the cancelation about 40% and even if they cancel it now, it could always happen later.”
Chantha says there’s been no official announcement of cancellation and that it may just be rumors spreading among hopeful residents. Sareth says a letter from August 2022 issued by the Ministry of Environment confirms the cancelation, but couldn’t produce the letter to show Mongabay by the time this story was published. Still, he says he’s confident it exists.
When questioned about the dam and the supposed cancellation, environment ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra denied having any information. Srey Sunleang, a senior ministry official responsible for freshwater wetlands and Ramsar sites, declined to comment.
Heng Kunleang, director of the Department of Energy at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, did not respond to questions sent by email, while Khnhel Bora, director of SBK Research and Development, says he’s also unaware of any cancellation.
Hanna and Pianka did not respond to questions sent via email, while Kith Meng, who is also president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce and an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, could not be reached for comment.
Royal Group’s track record on developing dams is so far limited to the 400-MW Lower Sesan 2, which was a joint venture with China’s state-owned Hydrolancang International Energy and Vietnam’s state-owned electricity utility, EVN International. In this partnership, Royal Group is believed to have been responsible for financing, rather than building, the dam.
‘Beginning of the end’
Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in studying hydropower development across Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, says he’s heard rumors of the Stung Treng dam project being resurrected. While it remains unclear exactly what would be built or where and how, he says, the project is a significant threat to the Mekong region.
“The Ramsar Convention is quite weak as governments can really do as they please in Ramsar sites, but Cambodia has been more responsive to international conventions than its neighbors and historically more concerned than others about international criticism, compared with Laos or Vietnam,” Baird says, pointing to Cambodia’s 2020 moratorium on Mekong dam building — a move that other Mekong Basin countries have not followed.
“But this is one of the reasons why exposing the problems related to the Lower Sesan 2 is very critical, because it’s the same developers,” Baird says, adding he’d hoped the failings of Royal Group’s first hydropower project would ward the government off from approving another.
If the Stung Treng dam gets the go-ahead, Baird says it would be more damaging than the controversial Don Sahong dam and the Xayaburi dam — both on the mainstream of the Mekong in Laos — and more significant than the soon-to-be-completed Sekong A dam on the Laotian stretch of the Sekong River, a key tributary that flows from Vietnam, through Laos and into the Mekong River in Cambodia.
“There’s a lot of reason for concern here, if it goes ahead, well – it’s the beginning of the end,” Baird says. “The Mekong is dying a death by a thousand cuts, I’ve watched it for years, and honestly, it’s sad, but what can you do?”
Residents point to Royal Group’s history in Stung Treng province as a reason to be fearful, adding that a new, significantly larger hydropower project could have even wider-reaching impacts.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if they go ahead with it,” says Sai from Koh Snaeng.
Featured image: A lone boat heads up the Mekong River through the Stung Treng Ramsar site. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
Editor’s note: Activists and environmentalists in the Philippines take extreme risks by speaking out to protect land and water. The Philippines has consistently been ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders. This story includes reference to 68-year-old environmental defender Daisy Macapanpan, who was arrested on what appear to be trumped-up charges for resisting the Ahunan pumped hydroelectric dam. This repression is merely the beginning.
Deep Green Resistance has collaborated with grassroots activists in the Philippines for many years. Some of our allies are involved in this fight, and are raising funds to print educational materials, hold events, and support community activism against the Ahunan hydro project by providing expertise, assisting in connections with lawyers, help getting international media coverage, and more. You can donate to these community organizers via PayPal to this email address. This story has not previously been reported in the international press.
MANILA — Casino billionaire Enrique Razon, one of the richest men in the Philippines, is planning a $1.1 billion hydropower dam which threatens Laguna De Bay, the largest lake in the nation and one of the largest in Southeast Asia, as well as the community of Pakil and rainforests on the flanks of the Sierra Madre mountains on the lake’s east bank.
Prime Infrastructure Capital corporation’s Ahunan Pumped-Storage Hydropower Project would destroy nearly 300 hectares of rainforest, leach toxic chemicals into Laguna De Bay, and could jeopardize the water supply for more than 20,000 residents of the area.
Local residents fear that the project could worsen typhoon flooding and lead to landslides, will destroy natural pools that are used in religious practices, and that the region’s frequent earthquakes could damage the dam and reservoir — which is planned to be built on Mt. Inumpong which rises above their community and that is riven by three major fault lines — leading to catastrophic failure.
Despite widespread community opposition, the project is set to break ground in 2023. Community organizers allege that illegal drilling is already taking place and that the Philippe army is guarding the site.
On June 11th, 68-year-old environmental defender Daisy Macapanpan, one of the leaders of the community opposition, was arrested in her home for “rebellion” after delivering a speech against the project. allegedly by 40 police officers with no warrant. She was released on August 10th on bail. Illegal detentions and arrests of environmentalists are common in the Philippines, which has also been ranked as the deadliest country for environmental defenders.
On August 8th, following extensive pressure from the communities and allegations of illegal conduct, the Municipal Councils and Chieftains of four directly impacted communities revoked a previous “no objection” resolution in favor of the project that had been in place since September 2021.
On August 23rd, the Department of Energy and Natural Resources Environmental Management Bureau and the community of Pakil dispatched representatives to investigate allegations on ongoing illegal construction.
Community organizers gathered in Pakil in August 2022 to resist the Ahunan hydroelectric dam project.
Pumped-storage hydropower is unlike regular hydropower dams, which block a river’s flow to produce electricity. Instead, pumped hydro storage (PHS) is an energy storage method. It depends on finding (or engineering) a site where two sizable reservoirs or natural water bodies at significantly different elevations can be connected by pipes. To store energy, operators pump water from the lower to the upper reservoir, and to use the stored energy, let it run back down through electrical power generation turbines.
According to the book Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What we Can Do About It, pumped-storage hydropower dams kill fish, distribute invasive species, destroy riparian vegetation and harm wetlands, decrease water quality, block aquatic migration, and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. The book also states that “these facilities lead to more fossil fuels being burnt” because of inefficiencies in the process.
The Ahunan Pumped-Storage Hydropower Project would produce 1,400 MW of electricity at full flow, none of which would go to the local community. Prime Infrastructure Capital corporation and the Philippines Department of Energy call the project “clean energy.”
The fish who live in Laguna De Bay are an important source of food for the 8.4 million people living in the surrounding communities. A petition to halt the project has been signed by more than 6,000 of the 15,000 voting-age residents closest to the proposed project.
The World Commission on Dams estimates that at least 40 million to 80 million people have been displaced by dams.
In the Pacific Northwest, fish cannot coexist with massive electricity demand.
by Max Wilbert
In 1980, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was given a mission to protect and restore salmon and steelhead fish populations in addition to running the dams in the Columbia River Basin (the most dammed watershed in the world) for electricity generation.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, hydroelectric dams produce the vast majority of electricity. And they cannot be replaced with other energy sources quickly, because building new power plants, solar and wind energy facilities, transmission lines, etc. on a large scale takes decades. (And because people like me will fight to defend every scrap of wild habitat from these projects.)
“Just downriver, the half-mile-wide Bonneville dam chokes the Columbia to a halt. When the dam was built in 1937, Bonneville was the biggest dam in the world. Now, it’s one of the smallest of 14 major dams just on the main stem of the Columbia, and one of more than 500 dams in the watershed.”
— Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It
NB: Offshore wind is coming to Oregon and Washington, and it will be a disaster for seabirds [many of whose populations are already plummeting], fish, whales, other marine mammals, plankton, and our oceans. We who love the natural world must fight this.
This means that we have a choice, here in the PNW. Abundant electricity or fish. We can’t have both.
If we choose fish, that means we must get rid of the dams, which means we must reduce energy demand, and change many other things.
To me that is an easy choice.
This is not a new problem. Advocates for wild salmon and steelhead — those who truly stand with the fish — have been saying this for many years.
chopped down for baseball fields and deck hockey rinks.
Destroying creation for recreation.
In what image? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pies and Chevrolets?
“Image” is an “artificial representation that looks like
a person or thing, copy, imitation, phantom.”
In what image have habitats been destroyed?
In God’s image?
As in “Then God said,
‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over the livestock and over all the earth
and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”
Is this the blueprint for overpopulation, franchising and global corporations?
“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply
and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over…’”
“…over every living thing that moves on the earth”
Is that the modus operandi for 24-7 surveillance?
Full spectrum dominance?
What’s wrong with the Winter image
of a snow-capped mountain
reflected in a crystal clear lake?
What’s wrong with an August lake
with the image of a forest reflected
upside down in still waters?
What’s wrong with the image
of a canoe gliding with fish and a clean river
in a gentle rain
under the stars?
What’s wrong with the image
of cloudy sky
in a dewdrop
on a flower?
If that’s not “God” then i’m an atheist.
What’s wrong with this picture:
a text with a photo of a sacred site,
oblivious that the site is slated for
the chopping block.
What’s wrong with this picture:
smiley family picnic
yet the trash they’ll leave
isn’t in the photo.
We don’t need to go to school
to learn how to
use our imaginations to make stuff up.
We need to look at what’s actually happening
and change what images we choose to copy.
STOP the choice of images of “sleek” “slick”
“sporty” “state of the art” “progress”
“because they’re doing it”
that destroy this fruitful world.
Let the Earth
and show us the way to live
with all the dizzying multitudinous array of natural images—
enough with the religio-corporate dominion over others.
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) is a verbiage experiencer, in other words, he’s into etymology, writes about his experiences and to encourage people to learn from direct experiences, not just head knowledge; you know, actions and feelings speak louder than words. He’s also a publisher and enjoys gardening, talking, listening, looking… His recent book is Moving Through The Empty Gate Forest: inside looking out. Find out more at his website: www.allbook-books.com
Editor’s note: Hydroelectric dams are not green energy, despite many claims that they are. Hydropower kills rivers, displaces millions of human beings, drives anadromous fish and other life dependent on free-flowing rivers extinct, and actually releases substantial greenhouse gasses. This post includes a short excerpt from Bright Green Lies as well as an article detailing a destructive dam proposal in Bolivia.
Dams are Not Green Energy
Excerpted from Chapter 11: The Hydropower Lie of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert
Once upon a time, dams were recognized for the environmental atrocities they are. Human beings understood that dams kill rivers, from source to sea. They understood that dams kill forests, marsh- lands, grasslands.
In the 12th century, Richard the Lionhearted (King Richard I of England) put in place a law forbidding dams from preventing salmon passage. In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce did some- thing similar for Scotland. His descendant Robert the III went even further, declaring that three convictions for killing salmon out of season would be a capital offense.
Fast-forward to today, when dams are claimed to provide “clean” and “green” energy.
Where’s Robert the III when you need him?
As recently as three decades ago, at least environmentalists still consistently opposed dams. But the coup that turned so much environmentalism away from protecting the real world and into a lobbying arm of favored sectors of the industrial economy has rhetorically turned dams into environmental saviors. And climate change activists are among the most relentless missionaries for the gospel of the green dam.
This issue is urgent. While here in the United States, no new large dams have been built in many years (although many shovel-ready proposals are waiting for public funding), large hydropower dams are being built around the world as quickly as (in)humanly possible.
Once again, environmental engineer Mark Jacobson is an exam- ple, as he always seems to be, of someone working hard to kill the planet in order to save it. His 100 percent “renewable” transition plans—and remember, bright greens and many mainstream environmentalists love this guy—call for building about 270 new large hydroelectric dams globally, each at least the size of the Hoover or Glen Canyon dams.6 He also calls for major expansions to existing dams by adding new turbines. His models rely heavily on hydro because solar and wind facilities are by their nature intermittent and unreliable.
In Bolivia, Indigenous groups fear the worst from dam project on Beni River
More than 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by flooding from the construction of two dams in Bolivia, according to Indigenous organizations and environmentalists.
Successive governments have mulled the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project for more than half a century, and the current administration of President Luis Acre has now revived it as a national priority.
While Indigenous groups have successfully rejected the plan in the past, this time a group of 10 Indigenous organizations have signed an agreement with the state energy company approving feasibility studies.
If completed, the reservoirs for the project would cover a combined area larger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and inundate an area that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species.
The Bolivian government has revived a long-held plan to build a hydroelectric plant in a corner of the country’s western La Paz department, sparking concerns about the potential displacement of more than 5,000 Indigenous people from the area.
The affected communities live in two protected areas, Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, parts of which would be flooded for the twin dams of the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project.
President Luis Arce, who served as minister of the economy in the earlier administration of Evo Morales, is following the same road map as his predecessor, who in July 2007 announced the original plans for the hydroelectric dams as a national priority.
The idea to generate hydropower in the Beni River Basin, specifically in El Bala Gorge, has been around for more than 50 years and given up on numerous times due to its economic unfeasibility and high environmental cost. The last time it was rejected by Indigenous communities was during the Hugo Banzer government in the late 1990s, before being nearly resurrected under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.
Since then, the issue had largely faded for the six Indigenous communities that live in the area: the Mosetén, Tsiman, Esse Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona. The groups are now speaking out against the hydropower project, saying it would “cut off” the three rivers vital to their existence: the Beni and two of its tributaries, the Tuichi and Quiquibey.
“This would mean forced displacement and that means taking away our territory. We would be forced to leave our space, our ancestral domain,” said Alex Villca, a member of the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap) of Bolivia. “We would be giving up what is most important: without territory there are no Indigenous peoples. This would be accepting a silent death. Wherever they take us, it would never be the same.”
The Indigenous leader said the problem goes even further. He said that in the Chepete mountains, some Indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation — believed to be Mosetén, although there aren’t many studies to confirm this — and that they would be “totally” affected if the dams were constructed in the area. “We know from our brothers that there exists, in the peaks of the Chepete, a community in voluntary isolation that must be unaware of all these plans. Imagine how that would affect them if this project comes to fruition,” Villca said.
In 2021, Bolivia’s National Electric Energy Company (Ende) resumed the commissioning of the Chepete-El Bala project, announcing tenders for geological and geotechnical studies. The state-owned company said that in the case of the Chepete plant, the planned reservoir area would flood 46 square kilometers (18 square miles) of the total area of 3,859 square kilometers (1,490 square miles) of the Pilón Lajas reserve. The reservoir at El Bala, meanwhile, would cover 94 km2 (36 mi2) of the 18,895-km2 (7,295-mi2) Madidi park.
In August, the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (Cpilap) signed an agreement with Ende authorizing the final design studies for the Chepete-El Bala project.
The agreement establishes that Cpilap must “allow the entry of Ende Corporation and its contracted companies to the areas of direct and indirect influence in order to carry out research, information gathering, socialization and data collection that allows studies, the creation of projects, to finalize the design to implement electric power generation, transmission and distribution.”
Villca spoke out against the signing of the agreement. “What worries us is that the tenor of the agreement is that it not only allows for complementary studies but also, in the future, allows Ende to start construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants. This is much more serious.”
Cpilap is a regional organization that brings together 10 Indigenous organizations in La Paz department: the Indigenous Council of the Tacana Peoples, the Office of the Indigenous Leco de Apolo, the Leco Indigenous People and Larecaja Native Communities, the Mosetén Indigenous Peoples Organization, the Indigenous Peoples of de San José de Uchupiamonas, the Esse Ejja of Eiyoquibo Indigenous Community, the Regional Council of T-simane Mosetén of Pilón Lajas, the Native Agroecological Community of Palos Blancos, the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Rio Madre de Dios, and the Captaincy of the Araona Indigenous People. All of these organizations, according to Villca, are connected to Arce and Morales’s ruling party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).
Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas, president of Cpilap, said five of the six affected Indigenous communities agreed with the hydropower project. The sixth community are the Mosetén, who didn’t sign the agreement. “This agreement doesn’t mean that the dam will be built,” he said. “The goal is to determine the feasibility or infeasibility of the project. Another important aspect that the agreement has is the social component, which we have included so that there can be electricity and housing projects.”
The Association of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey Rivers, an organization started in 2001 to defend the ancestral territories of the six Indigenous communities impacted by the project, has demanded that a prior consultation be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the project. The communities met over one weekend and decided to reject the government initiative, demonstrating that there are leaders for and against conducting feasibility studies for the project.
“We remind [the government] that in 2016 there was a 12-day vigil and the expulsion of the Geodata and Servicons companies that had started work and studies in the territory without fulfilling a free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] consultation in good faith so as to receive the consent of the communities,” said a document published by the association.
Terrazas said the signing of the agreement with Ende doesn’t mean there won’t be consultation with Indigenous communities. He said that if the feasibility of the project is approved, a consultation will be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the construction of the hydropower plants.
In January 2018, Ende returned the prefeasibility study to the Italian company Geodata Engineering for correction. Geodata recommended “to postpone the development of the El Bala 220 hydroelectric plant until the conditions in the Bolivian energy market and abroad indicate that it is convenient to start its implementation.”
The project, which would start after a public tender is launched, would flood at least 662 km2 (256 mi2) of land for the two dams, according to Indigenous groups. Combined, the two reservoirs would cover an area five times bigger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. And if the dried-out salt lake of Poopó, in the department of Oruro, doesn’t recover, Chepete-El Bala would be the second-biggest lake in Bolivia after Titicaca.
The project calls for building the first dam in the Beni River’s Chepete Gorge, 70 km (43 mi) upstream from the town of Rurrenabaque, in the department of Beni, and the second near El Bala Gorge, 13.5 km (8.3 mi) upstream of the same town.
The Chepete dam would raise the water level to 158 meters (518 feet), forming a lake that would be 400 m (1,312 ft) above sea level. The dam at El Bala would raise the water level by 20 m (65 ft) and its reservoir would be 220 m (721 ft) above sea level. Unlike the Chepete dam, which would be a concrete wall, the dam at El Bala would consist of gates and generators in the middle of the river.
Extinction and displacement
According to the Solón Foundation, an environmental NGO, a total of 5,164 people would be relocated for the project, the majority of them Indigenous. The area is also home to 424 plant species of plants, 201 land mammals, 652 birds, 483 amphibians and reptiles, and 515 fish species. It’s not clear which species are most likely to go locally extinct as a result of the flooding, or how many would be affected.
The main fear of the Indigenous communities in the area is that the construction of both dams would mean forcibly displacing more than 5,000 residents. The construction of the second reservoir at El Bala, according to the Solón Foundation and Indigenous organizations opposed to the project, would flood the entire community of San Miguel del Bala. There’s no official information on a displacement plan for the communities more than 1,000 residents.
And with the construction of the Chepete reservoir, a little more than 4,000 Indigenous people would be displaced. All the populated areas affected by the reservoir, according to Geodata, have collective titles belonging to the Tacanas, Lecos and Mosetén peoples. Additionally, development on the river could interfere with the livelihoods of many residents, who fish and farm and, in more recent years, oversee communal tourism activities.
Valentín Luna is an Indigenous Tacana leader and head of the San Miguel del Bala community. Currently, there are at least 20 eco-lodges that have been built in the Madidi and Pilón Lajas protected areas. Most of these initiatives are managed by the local communities. Four of these eco-lodges would be flooded by the dams, according to Luna: one in Chalalán overseen by the Uchupiamonas, one run by San Miguel del Bala residents, one in Villa Alcira, and one run by the Chimanes and Mosetén of Asunción del Quiquibey.
For the Indigenous people who don’t want the dams in their area, the main worry isn’t the end of tourism. They fear that the six Indigenous groups will disappear along with it.