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Controversial Amazon dams may have exacerbated biblical flooding

Road flooded in Rondonia state, Brazil. Photo by: © GREENPEACE / Lunae Parracho.

Road flooded in Rondonia state, Brazil. Photo by: © GREENPEACE / Lunae Parracho.

Environmentalists and scientists raised howls of protest when the Santo Antônio and Jirau Dams were proposed for the Western Amazon in Brazil, claiming among other issues that the dams would raise water levels on the Madeira River, potentially leading to catastrophic flooding. It turns out they may have been right: last week a federal Brazilian court ordered a new environmental impact study on the dams given suspicion that they have worsened recent flooding in Brazil and across the border in Bolivia.

Madeira River’s water level hit its highest point ever recorded in recent weeks, swamping villages, cutting roadways, drowning thousands cattle, and flooding ecosystems. To date, the disaster has left over 20,000 people homeless, cut off the entire state of Acre from the outside, and will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Critics of the dams say that the record flooding is likely the result of two causes: the dams and climate change.

“The disaster has revealed the failure of dam builders to both accurately assess the cumulative impacts of a large dam cascade and integrate climate change into hydrological models,” Zachary Hurwitz, Public Policy Coordinator for International Rivers wrote in a recent blog.

Inundated forest due to flooding. Photo by: © GREENPEACE / Lunae Parracho.
Inundated forest due to flooding. Photo by: © GREENPEACE / Lunae Parracho.

Hurwitz contends that Brazil and the companies based their dam assessments on past water levels, but global warming has changed the rules leading to more extreme precipitation events and, at other times, prolonged drought, increasing both the ecologic and economic risks of megadams.

“That should teach dam builders a lesson: past trends no longer reliably predict future ones—a concept called non-stationarity,” Hurwitz writes.

The 3,750-megawatt Jiaru Dam, which is in the final stage of construction, is run be Energia Sustentável do Brasil, while Eletrobras and Cia Energética de Minas Gerais operate the San Antônio Dam, which began running in 2012. The judge ordered both companies to provide food and shelter to 11,000 displaced people in Brazil’s Rondonia state, but did not go so far as to order the dams shut down until they could prove they played no role in the flooding.

Still, Brazil has ordered San Antônio Dam to shut down temporarily in light of flooding, worsening Brazil’s power outage crisis. Meanwhile, flood waters have submerged Jiaru’s building site, putting construction on hold. Critics say that this proves that Brazil’s dependence on big hydropower projects for the bulk of its energy is misguided.

The disaster has also spread over the border. Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, has ordered an investigation into whether or not the dams worsened flooding in his country, which reportedly killed 90 people and 290,000 cattle. To date, the cost to Bolivia is estimated to be over $111 million. A report released in 2008 by International Waters warned that the construction of the Santo Antônio and Jirau Dams would likely result in extensive flooding across Bolivia.

NASA images acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) reveal a sharp contrast in Bolivia. The top image, acquired by the Terra satellite on March 28, 2013, shows “typical” conditions. The bottom image, acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on February 17, 2014, shows a flooded landscape. False-color images below make it easier to distinguish between flood water and background vegetation.

Prior to their construction, the dams were opposed by many for the expected impacts on migrating fish, indigenous people, and flooding 520 square kilometers (200 square miles) of rainforest for the initial reservoirs.

The dams were are also a part of the bi-national effort to vastly increase soy production in the region, even as soy has become one of the largest drivers of Amazon deforestation as well as loss of other tropical habitats.

“[The dams] are a part of the projected inland waterway that will carry soy etc from the Madeira region thorough the Pantanal to the Paraguay River,” Louise Emmons, a biologist working in Bolivia with Smithsonian. told “This will cause the conversion of massive areas of poor-soil Brazilian-shield cerrado and Pantanal habitat in Bolivia to agroindustry and erect a huge a barrier to fauna, such as the maned wolves I study, and split Brazilian and Bolivian populations. It will also drain and destroy the Pantanal.”

Soy fields cutting into the Amazon rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Soy fields cutting into the Amazon rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The dams made news again when engineers discovered the first living penis snake (Atretochoana eiselti) ever seen, while draining the Madeira River. Photos of the species—which is the world’s biggest caecilian, a type of legless amphibians—made international news. Almost nothing is known about the species, including whether or not it’s endangered.

But the Santo Antônio and Jirau Dams are just the beginning. Amazonian countries have over 150 massive hydrologic projects planned for the region, many already under construction even as environmentalists, scientists, indigenous groups, and locals protest.

The companies have 90 days to start new environmental impact statements.

The only living penis snakes (Atretochoana eiselti) were discovered while draining the Madeira River. No one knows how many may survive. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The only living penis snakes (Atretochoana eiselti) were discovered while draining the Madeira River. No one knows how many may survive. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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