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ARGENTINA-PARAGUAY: Giant Dams Touted as Development

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 24 2011 (IPS) - The Yacyretá hydroelectric dam run by Argentina and Paraguay is fully operational, supplying the energy it was designed to provide when it was built 40 years ago. But critics complain about severe social and environmental impacts.

The giant dam on the Paraná River, which separates the two countries, left wetlands rich in biodiversity under water, hurt previously abundant fish species, and pushed some 100,000 people out of their homes in the two South American countries.

Although the original idea was to supply energy to both countries, the main beneficiary of the 3,000 MW of installed capacity is Argentina. A total of 15 billion dollars went into building the dam and hydropower station, 10 times more than the initial cost estimate.

Yacyretá’s energy supplies to Argentina, which uses around 90 percent of the power produced by the dam, represent approximately 20 percent of the country’s total electricity consumption, according to the Federal Planning Ministry.

For the construction of the dam itself, 15,000 families were relocated to new housing on the outskirts of the city of Encarnación in southeast Paraguay and nearby Posadas in Argentina, the cities most affected by the dam. The majority of the relocated people lost their livelihoods.

Some 160,000 hectares were flooded by the reservoir, and the local residents had to choose between relocation to new settlements or monetary compensation.

Today, many of the people who were relocated can’t find a way to make a living.

“Yacyretá is the dam that displaced the largest number of people in the western world, many of whom depended for a living on activities involving the river; these are the people who have not managed to find a new livelihood,” Jorge Urusoff, a local resident who heads the Tajy Environmental Association, in Encarnación, told IPS.

“Not a single business was created to give people real jobs, either on the Argentine side or on our side,” he said.

The Entidad Binacional Yacyretá (EBY), the binational company that operates the hydropower station, did not respond to IPS’ multiple requests for an interview. But the company states on its web site that the displaced “were, in general, people living in precarious settlements, and now they have housing that they formally own,” with plumbing and running water.

But Jorge Cappato of the Fundación Proteger, a local environmental group, stressed the enormous social and environmental impact of Yacyretá, and of another major hydroelectric dam on the same river, the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipú dam.

“There is a distorted concept that development can only be achieved by means of megaprojects, when all they really bring are profits for big industry and for the politicians who find it good business to show them off,” the activist, whose foundation works to defend wetlands and fish species along the Paraná River, told IPS.

“There is a perverse equation which holds that more energy equals more development and better living standards, but we have seen energy production growing for a long time now and we continue to wonder, where are the better living standards?” he remarked.

Cappato said the Yacyretá dam “is a monument to one of the great myths of development” and the new neighbourhoods that were built to relocate people “are new, but they don’t ensure jobs or quality of life.”

Both Urusoff and Cappato pointed out that the relocated communities depended on fishing, pottery, brick-making and rice-growing for a living – activities that require abundant water, wetlands and space and cannot be carried out in urban areas.

The agreement to build the dam was signed by the governments of the two countries in 1973. The cost of the enormous undertaking was initially projected at 1.7 billion dollars, and the hydropower station was to provide electricity for six million households.

However, the construction project became notorious for the level of corruption and the failure to meet deadlines. In 1998, the government of then Argentine president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) attempted to privatise it with the argument that it was “a monument to corruption.”

The first turbine did not start operating until 21 years after the agreement was signed. But at that time the reservoir only stood at 76 metres above sea level, when it was designed for 83 metres above sea level.

In 2003, the governments of Argentina and Paraguay agreed on a plan to finish Yacyretá, in which they committed themselves to speeding up work on the relocation of families and on mitigating the damages. And in February of this year the water in the reservoir was finally raised to 83 metres above sea level and the dam began to operate at full capacity.

At the ceremony to mark the completion of the project, Argentine President Cristina Fernández admitted that “progress brings problems” and that the affected families should be duly compensated. But she also remarked that “without energy we can’t keep growing.”

People in the affected areas see things in a different light. “This project has always been ‘autistic’, completely unsustainable, and it still is. It was built in a low-lying area that is not suitable for a dam,” Urusoff said.

Paraguay sells Argentina the energy it does not consume, but at a ridiculously low price, the activist complained.

The country has a similar arrangement with Brazil, which does not pay Asunción the market rate for the energy generated by the Itaipú dam, he added.

“The rhetoric is always the same: big dams bring development and modernisation – but none of them actually provides the promised results. The displaced children had one source of protein, fish, and now they don’t have that any longer,” he said.

He argued that the energy produced by the dams feeds a high-consumption society and does nothing for the development of local communities. The local people “are unwanted guests who are never consulted or informed,” he said.

With respect to the environmental impact, Cappato said Itaipú and Yacyretá are like “tweezers squeezing an artery.”

“The modification of the natural water flow, which is the basis of the biological wealth of the Paraná river, has been enormous,” the activist said.

During low-water season, the reservoirs accumulate water, and the flow is reduced, which has a heavy impact on the migration of fish species, in the Paraná itself and between the river and its tributaries.

Species that are important commercially and for the tourism and sports industries, like the surubí, a kind of giant catfish, and the dorado or dolphin fish, come up against the insurmountable wall of the dam, Cappato said.

The activist also pointed out that the flooded wetlands “rot” and produce methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. “But the only thing that is heard are the siren calls of the advocates of development,” he said.

River ports also suffer the drop in the water level. Boats are unable to dock, which has negative repercussions, especially in Paraguay, a landlocked country that is heavily dependent on river navigation.

Nevertheless, EBY is working to expand Yacyretá, installing turbines in the Aña Cuá branch of the complex, which will increase the plant’s capacity. In addition, there are plans to resume work on Corpus, another joint Argentine-Paraguayan dam on the Paraná River.

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