Environment, Europe, Headlines

ICELAND: Environmentalists See Off Hydro Project

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIC, Feb 2 2006 (IPS) - The Thjorsarver wetlands in South Iceland have been saved from the ravages of a hydro-electric scheme, at least for the foreseeable future.

Thjorsarver is home to the world’s largest breeding ground for pink-footed geese, up to 10,000 breeding pairs. But many other birds nest there too, such as the purple sandpiper, red-necked phalarope, dunlin, Arctic tern, Arctic skua, ptarmigan, golden and ringed plovers, snow bunting and the long-tailed duck.

Botanically, it is home to 167 species of vascular plants as well as mosses and lichens, some of them rare. The insect life is rich.

Thjorsarver encompasses 120 square km in the uninhabited highlands, and comprises an oasis of low hills, tundra wetlands and hummocky land caused by permafrost. There are many pools and lakes, along with a glacier named Hofsjokull, and a glacial river, Thjorsa.

It is a wetlands area that became listed as a ‘Ramsar’ site in 1990, which makes it a natural reserve that should be left untouched.

But the area has not been left untouched, because a series of channels and reservoirs called Kvíslaveita have been built here.. Critics say the Kvíslaveita alone has caused considerable damage.

Despite its special environmental qualities, many hydro-electric schemes have been planned here since 1950, when the first idea of a dam at 608m above sea level at Nordlingaalda was conceived. In 1972 the idea was resurrected by another engineering firm, this time with dam options at 581, 589 and 594 metres above sea level.

The plan has always been to channel water into the Thjorsa river from Thjorsarver, and to therefore increase power production from the existing hydro-power stations of Vatnsfell, Sigalda, Hrauneyjafoss and Budarhals.

The height of the dam and accompanying reservoir has been one of the key issues of controversy in the Thjorsarver diversion project. Because the land is so flat, an increase of a few metres in the height of the reservoir could lead to considerable flooding and habitat destruction.

Opposition to the project started in the mid-70s, at a time when Icelanders were first becoming aware of environmental issues. Local residents from the districts bordering the western side of the river Thjorsa, Skeida and Gnupverjahreppur, were particularly opposed to the project. Their opposition has been crucial to the eventual abandonment of the project.

In 1981 the area became designated as a nature reserve, but with the proviso that a reservoir could be built in association with a dam at 581m at Nordlingaalda.

In 1999 the Nordlingaalda project, including a dam at an altitude of 581m, became incorporated into plans for the central highlands of Iceland, with the proviso that nature would not be adversely affected.

The Planning Authority agreed the environmental impact assessment for the project in 2002, but the reservoir could only be 575m. Their decision was surprising, as they pointed out that the project would entail irreversible and considerable damage to the vegetation, tundra forms, water conditions, insects, birdlife and landscape of Thjorsarver.

The Iceland Conservation Council and other bodies appealed against the decision to Environment Minister Siv Fridleiksdottir. They said that the eastern section of the wetlands had already been disturbed by Kvislaveita and that no other development should be allowed.

After considerable to and fro, and appeals and revisions, their appeal was upheld.

This time the shelving may be permanent. The government has now decided to expand the area of Thjorsarver this year.. The expansion of the nature reserve is expected to make it safe from further threats.

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