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ARGENTINA-BRAZIL: Planned Binational Dam Under Fire

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 27 2008 (IPS) - Feeling the pressure of rising energy demand, the governments of Argentina and Brazil are taking a fresh look at old plans for the Garabí hydroelectric dam on the Uruguay River, which environmentalists say would endanger the flow of this already highly exploited water source.

Estreito do Uruguai, between Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, covered by water from the Itá dam. Credit: Fundación Proteger

Estreito do Uruguai, between Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, covered by water from the Itá dam. Credit: Fundación Proteger

“While they talk about building the Garabí, the Salto Grande (Argentina-Uruguay) dam on the same river is barely functioning due to lack of water,” Jorge Cappato, of the Argentine environmental group Fundación Proteger, told Tierramérica.

“Between the dams that already exist and the planned ones, in a few years the Uruguay River will have become a series of ponds. Wetlands and forests will be flooded, diminishing biodiversity and water quality,” he predicted.

In periods of drought or scant rainfall the reservoirs will accumulate what little water there is and there will be extremely little outflow. “We are going to walk across riverbeds,” said Cappato, who is also coordinator of the Argentine committee of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

In late February, Argentine President Cristina Fernández and her Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ratified the decision to relaunch work on the binational Garabí dam, first planned in 1972. A technical commission was created to oversee the preliminary work and construction is slated to begin in 2011.

The first Argentine-Brazilian dam would have an energy-generating potential of 2,800 megawatts and would mean flooding 33,000 hectares of inhabited land on both sides of the river. It would be located along the stretch between the far north-eastern Argentine province of Corrientes and the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Also planned are two more Argentine-Brazilian dams along the same river: San Pedro and Roncador.

The “Uruguai” river (as it is spelled in Portuguese) begins in Brazil and flows into the River Plate (Río de la Plata). Its course forms the border between Brazil and Argentina, and, farther downriver, between Argentina and Uruguay. In its initial stretch there are four hydroelectric dams (Itá, Machadinho, Passo Fundo and Barra Grande), and below is the Salto Grande dam, shared by Argentina and Uruguay.

“We need a common water resource management policy for Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. We warned about this when the Iguaçu Falls ran dry in June 2006,” Cappato said.

Brazil had closed the sluice gates on several hydroelectric dams on the Iguaçu River and the decline in the flow revealed the basalt walls of the otherwise imposing waterfalls shared with Argentina.

A demonstration of what can happen when there is a shortage of rainfall can be found today at Salto Grande. According to its technical commission, in mid-November the energy it supplied was more than 42,000 megawatt hours (MWh), but by December it had fallen to 8,975 MWh.

“Argentina and Uruguay agreed for now to use very little energy from the dam, so just three of the 14 turbines are operating,” engineer Enrique Topolansky, president of the Uruguayan delegation to the Salto Grande technical commission, told Tierramérica.

“The idea is to store water until after Easter Week, so downriver there is almost no flow,” he admitted. But Topolansky said it would be a positive thing to build the Garabí dam, because its reservoir would provide more water resources to the overall water system in times of drought and would help regulate water supplies and prevent overflow at times of heavy rainfall.

It is true that “water is very scarce, but even more scarce is energy, and the countries have to function with what they have,” he said.

“Garabí is a project of Argentina and Brazil. It would be irrational for Argentina to undermine the operation of another dam that it has with Uruguay, like Salto Grande. The operations will need even closer coordination if all sides are to come out ahead,” he said.

But environmentalists believe that such coordination is nothing more than words, and insist that big dams have had irreversible social, economic and environmental costs across the region.

A communiqué released by environmental and citizen groups on Mar. 14 in Buenos Aires and in Porto Alegre, Brazil, states that the Garabí dam would cause a loss of biodiversity, alter the local microclimate, destroy fisheries and increase poverty.

The Saltos del Moconá, a waterfall more than three kilometres long, could be drowned by the reservoir. That already happened with the Sete Quedas (seven cascades) that disappeared as a result of the Itaipú dam on the Paraná River, said Cappato.

Something similar occurred with Itá, which left the falls of the Estreito do Uruguai underwater.

“Garabí will be a final blow to the Uruguay River basin,” said attorney Jorge Daneri, of the Fundación Mbiguá, in the inter-river city of Paraná.

“We are taking action so that the Garabí will not be built,” Elisángela Soldatelli, projects coordinator for Friends of the Earth Brazil, told Tierramérica. The dam “would aggravate damage in the basin,” which already has to withstand large hydroelectric dams and has other in preparatory phases, she said.

According to Topolansky, the Garabí, Salto Grande and other dams upriver do not have large reservoirs. “They are small in relation to the power they produce,” he said.

One of the project’s prior studies indicates that 7,000 families would have to be relocated, including family farming cooperatives and artisanal fishing villages, said Soldatelli. “There was not even any debate in the community as to why and for whom a large hydroelectric dam is needed,” she said.

In her opinion it is likely that the energy is destined for high-energy-use industries, like aluminium and paper pulp. “But for such things there are alternative energies, like wind and thermoelectric, which they have ignored,” she argued.

(*Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent. Mario Osava in Rio de Janeiro and Diana Cariboni in Montevideo contributed reporting. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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