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ARGENTINA-BRAZIL: Planned Dam Above Famous Falls Draws Fire

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 30 2009 (IPS) - While a dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over a pulp mill simmers on, a new environmental conflict over a border river is taking shape, this time involving a hydroelectric dam between Argentina and Brazil.

“I hope we can create a movement to block this new dam,” Argentine lawmaker Timoteo Llera, a former mayor of the northeastern city of Puerto Iguazú, told IPS.

Llera submitted a request for information from the Foreign Ministry on the Brazilian dam that would be built 90 km north of the majestic Iguazú falls, which are shared by the two countries.

“Brazil does whatever it wants with the Iguazú river, sharply altering the flow of water in a question of hours. But the Iguazú falls have been a world heritage site since 1984 and if they are left without water, an international dispute could arise,” said the legislator, who has called on the tourism industry on both sides of the border to oppose the dam.

The hydroelectric dam, which would be the sixth to operate on the Iguazú river, “will impact the volume of water at the falls and the biodiversity along the riverbank,” said Llera. “We need an agreement on the shared use of the river, because this region depends on the tourists who visit the falls in Argentina and Brazil.”

The enormous falls, the world’s most powerful in terms of volume of water flow per second, with sections 80 metres tall, is in the Iguazú National Park in the province of Misiones.

Receiving nearly one million visitors a year, the subtropical park is the most visited of Argentina’s 28 national parks.

The Iguazú river emerges at 1,300 metres above sea level in the Serra do Mar mountains in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, and flows 1,320 km until it runs into the Paraná river.

The last 100-km stretch of the Iguazú river, which includes the falls, forms part of the border between Argentina and Brazil. The waterfall consists of 275 falls along a 2.7-km stretch of the river. Two-thirds of the falls are in Argentine territory.

The Iguaçu National Park, on the Brazilian side, which is larger than its Argentine counterpart, was named a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1986.

The contract for the construction of the projected new dam upstream of the falls, which would be called Baixo Iguaçu or Capanema, was awarded to the Neoenergía company in October 2008 by Brazil’s power regulator, ANEEL. The hydroelectric plant would generate 350 megawatts. The five dams already operating on the Iguazú river are named Foz do Areia, Salto Segredo, Salto Santiago, Salto Osorio and Salto Caxias.

“Every time they open or close the sluice gates in Brazil, the level of the water in the falls drops or rises, and that affects biodiversity along the riverbanks, which require a constantly humid environment,” the head of the Iguazú National Park, Daniel Costras, told IPS.

Costras pointed out that in the past, the water level at the falls varied according to rainfall, and the seasons were clearly marked, with 2,500 cubic metres per second falling over the falls in October and 1,320 cubic metres per second in April.

The changes now are abrupt, he said.

“In one day, the water level can rise or drop half a metre along the banks of the river,” noted Costras, who expressed his concern to the National Park Administration, which relayed it to the Foreign Ministry.

The Ministry has already received a request for information on the projected dam from Congress.

This month, the Foreign Ministry’s under-secretary on Latin American policy, Agustín Colombo, explained to provincial legislators from Misiones that the project is still in the preliminary stages. According to the official, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Itamaraty, told him the project has not yet been clearly defined.

But Colombo said there is no treaty regulating infrastructure works along the river, and that Brazil cannot be kept from building a new dam in its territory.

Environmentalists say the case highlights once again the need for coordination between countries with respect to infrastructure projects that have a subregional impact.

The long-running conflict between Argentina and Uruguay over a paper pulp mill on a border river between the two countries made its way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

For the last four years, residents of Gualeguaychú, an Argentine resort town located 22 km from the plant, have been protesting the mill that is operating on the Uruguay river near the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos, staging frequent blockages of the main international bridge linking the two countries.

In the case of the paper mill, which is owned by the Finnish firm Botnia, a treaty that had been previously signed by the two countries and a binational commission for jointly administering the Uruguay river did not prevent the escalation of the dispute, due partly to the lack of prior coordination, according to diplomats at the Argentine Foreign Ministry.

The Fundación Proteger, an environmental organisation based in the northeastern Argentine province of Santa Fe, has long pointed to the need for an “ecosystemic focus” on river basins, which would require a consensus among the countries involved.

“Water management in shared watersheds is one of the big challenges of this century,” Fundación Proteger activist Jorge Cappato told IPS.

Cappato recalled that in June 2006, the Iguazú falls were left “almost dry” due to the closure of the sluice gates at the five Brazilian dams, a measure that was aimed at accumulating water and generating electricity during a period of drought.

“There was scarcity of rainfall, but the decisive aspect was the closure of the dams,” he said.

In his view, there should be a regional management plan to prevent economic and social impacts, along the Iguazú river as well as on the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, which make up the vast Rio de la Plata watershed.

The Fundación Proteger sent a letter this month to the Argentine Foreign Ministry, warning about the sharp drop in the water level of the Paraná river caused by the Argentine-Paraguayan Yacyretá hydroelectric dam and the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipú dam.

The letter, which was seen by IPS, said the average water level in the Paraná river in the northeastern province of Corrientes had dropped from 4.05 metres in 2007 to 3.38 meters in 2008 and 2.54 metres in January 2009.

Scant rainfall is the underlying cause, which is aggravated by the dams when they accumulate water to generate electricity, says the letter.

Equally delicate is the equilibrium of the Uruguay river that, with nearly 25 hydroelectric dams – several of which are binational – along its course, is on the way to becoming a chain of isolated pools, which will have an impact on fishing, wetlands, water quality and quantity, and regional biodiversity, Cappato warned.

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  • No one in preticular

    Would it make sense to dam the iguazu falls? Not for me, and it really is because of 3 reasons. Of which the first is that the falls are beautiful and breath taking. The second reason is the tourist attraction that the falls have, if the falls don’t have any more water than the tourist will go away. And saying that the tourist attraction give the people of the falls work, I say it is a bad thing to do, for it will get rid of jobs and some of the money tourist give to visit the attraction. My final and 3rd reason is that, and correct me if I am wrong, if they block the river, it will block off the water supplies some areas live and depend on. I say that no, there shouldn’t be a dam built there.

many masters many lives