Dams are rapidly damning the Amazon

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 08, 2012

Construction of a canal for the Belo Monte Dam project, near Altamira taken by Daniel Beltrá for Greenpeace. Once completed, the Belo Monte Dam will be the third largest in the world. It will submerge up to 400,000 hectares and displace 20,000 people. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

Dam-builders seeking to unlock the hydroelectric potential of the Amazon are putting the world's mightiest river and rainforest at risk, suggests a new assessment that charts the rapid expansion of dams in the region.

The report, published as an atlas by 11 NGOs and research institutions that form the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG), shows that Amazon counties have built or are planning to develop more than 400 dams in the Amazon Basin. 171 dams have already been built, while 246 are under construction or planned. Of the 246 new dams, 67 would have a capacity exceeding 30 megawatts.

With 231, Brazil has the most dams in the works. The South American giant estimates the hydroelectric potential of its share of the Amazon at 260,000 MW, or enough to power a quarter of a billion American homes.

Brazil's engineering firms are also building many of the dams in neighboring Amazon countries. Peru has 11 planned dams, while Bolivia has four, according to the report.

The lower and middle parts of the Amazon is the most targeted river for dams, with 79. 16 of the dams would be larger than 30 megawatts. The lower and middle Amazon already has 34 dams. Major hydropower development is also planned for the Tocantins River in Brazil's southern Amazon, where 20 large-capacity dams are on track. The upper reaches of the Amazon may see 13 large dams.

Number of hydropower by country of the Amazon, by type and phase

Country< 30MW> 30MWTotal< 30MW> 30MWTotalTotal
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Ecologists say there are myriad problems with large dams in tropical ecosystems, especially when built on the scale envisioned in the Amazon. Large dams interfere with the hydrological cycle and nutrient flows through an ecosystem, while restricting or blocking access to breeding and feeding grounds for migratory fish species. Meanwhile areas inundated with water can generate substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Design flaws in some tropical dams, which draw methane from the base of their reservoirs, can exacerbate climate impacts. Finally flooding in the reservoir area can displace communities traditionally dependent on rivers, while creating hardship downstream from reduced fisheries.

But the atlas says many of these issues are typically part of the dialog around dam projects. In fact the understanding of dam impacts of often very poor. For example, politicians have asserted that the controversial 11,233 MW Belo Monte dam in the Southern Amazon isn't part of the Amazon and won't flood any rainforests, when in fact the project will indeed inundate tens of thousands of hectares. According to analysts, in order for the project to be financially viable, two additional dams will need to be built upstream from Belo Monte, an issue that has barely registered in the public debate over the dam. Yet dam supporters claim that giant Amazon dams are a form of "clean energy".

"Dams are a centerpiece of greenwashing here in the Amazon," said Philip Fearnside of Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia in Manaus during a symposium in June 2012 in Bonito, Brazil. "Dams release methane, a gas with a much higher impact on global warming per ton than carbon dioxide, especially during the first decades after construction."

Beyond dams, the atlas reviews other potential threats to the Amazon, including deforestation, a mining boom, expansion of oil and gas exploration and extraction, a proliferation in hydroelectric projects, expanding road networks, and rising incidence of fire.

CITATION: RAISG 2012. Amazonía bajo presión [PDF-Spanish}

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Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (December 08, 2012).

Dams are rapidly damning the Amazon.