Famed Actor Drowns Downstream from Brazil’s Xingo Dam

Sarah Bardeen
Domingos Montagner, who died on September 15 near the Xingo Dam.
Domingos Montagner, who died on September 15 near the Xingo Dam.
TV Globo/Divulgação

Just a couple of weeks ago, tragedy struck on the Sao Francisco River in Brazil.

A film crew was on location in the Brazilian state of Sergipe, shooting the Brazilian telenovela “Velho Chico.” Some of the country’s leading actors, including Brazilian hearthrob Domingos Montagner, were shooting the final scenes of the show. 

On Thursday, September 15, Montagner and his co-star Camila Pitanga went to swim in the river just after lunch. About an hour later, Montagner appeared to be struggling in the water. Despite efforts to rescue him, Domingos Montagner drowned.

Initial reports of the accident caught the attention of our Amazon Program Director Brent Millikan. The location where they were swimming was just two kilometers downstream from the Xingo Dam. The Xingo Dam is the seventh-largest dam in the world, and the third-largest in Brazil. 

Montagner’s co-star described a sudden increase in the river’s current around the time that Montagner drowned. That, and the fact that the accident occurred slightly more than a mile below the dam, suggested to Millikan a need to investigate whether there was a link between the dam and the accident. 

Millikan posted his concern on Facebook, which went viral as more than 10,000 people shared the information. Even more tellingly, people commented with their own stories about fatal and near-fatal accidents near dams where people were swept away and, in some cases, killed.

The Xingo Dam on the Sao Francisco River in Brazil.
The Xingo Dam on the Sao Francisco River in Brazil.

Millikan filed a request to find out if there were major alterations to the discharge rate of water from the dam on the day that Montagner drowned. The request for information was filed with various regulatory agencies, including the dam operator Chesf, an affiliate of Eletrobras.

Yesterday we received a response from Chesf, confirming that during the time of the accident there was a major increase in the discharge rate of almost twenty percent – increasing from 814 cubic meters per second at 1 p.m. to 970 cubic meters per second just two hours later. The accident was first reported at 1:56 p.m. 

This was already a dangerous spot in the river, and it was made more dangerous by the dam, which increases the force of the current. It was made even more dangerous by the sudden increase in water release on September 15.

There were no warning signs where Montagner was swimming. There were no lifeguards, despite the fact that the area is a tourist destination. Chesf had not installed a warning system downstream from the dam. Chesf has said they were simply following orders from the national electrical authority (ONS) when they increased the dam’s electrical output on September 15.

This problem is not isolated to the Sao Francisco River, nor is it isolated to Brazil. Lives are being lost near dams in Brazil and worldwide. A sudden release of water can create an “artificial tsunami” that has major impacts on fish, wildlife and humans downstream, and right now, the dam industry is not accountable for the effects of these releases.

Montagner’s death was not the first, and it will not be the last, unless regulators decide to establish regimes for managing dams that maintain flows at safe levels and don’t leave people and the ecosystem exposed to unnecessary danger.

International Rivers partnered with The Intercept in Brazil – Glenn Greenwald’s online magazine – to report this breaking news. Montagner’s death caused shock and dismay throughout Brazil.  We hope that these latest revelations will lead to needed reform in Brazil’s hydropower sector, to make sure that downstream communities do not suffer such tragedies.

Thursday, September 29, 2016