El Salvador's El Cimarron Dam Cancelled

Lempa River no longer threatened by El Cimarron Dam.
Lempa River no longer threatened by El Cimarron Dam.
David Cruz

Reprieve for Central America's Longest River 

Belching heavy clouds of diesel, a line of old US yellow school buses crossed Salvadorian mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see. The buses carried communities from all over Mesoamerica to the Municipality of Carolina in San Miguel Province, where the Third MesoAmerican Forum Against Dams took place in 2004. It was my first time in El Salvador and the spirit of this caravan of dam-affected people ready to work was contagious.

This meeting was the first step in helping to consolidate the Movement of Dam Affected Peoples of El Salvador (MONARES). A host of groups have been fighting construction of new dams on the Lempa River, (the longest in Central America and shared by three countries) and the Torola River for close to a decade. El Chaparral, El Cimarron and El Tigre dams were at the top of their list of problem projects - dams that would destroy too many people's livelihoods with too little return.

The act of coming together to strategize about protecting their communities against the ravages of big dams has finally paid off for some of these communities. The Salvadorian government announced in January that it was scrapping the proposed El Cimarron Dam. The dam, which would have blocked the Lempa River, would have displaced nearly 35,000 people from their homes and farms.

In his announcement that the dam was shelved, President Mauricio Funes said it would not be built in its current design because of the environmental and social problems it would cause. El Cimarron dam would have been the sixth largest hydroelectric dam in El Salvador. The project, which does not have a feasibility study yet, included a river diversion and an 8km tunnel. It has been in the planning stages for 12 years, and its costs have tripled in that time. Although South Korea sent a delegation to El Salvador last year demonstrating interest in financing, the deal never closed.

But communities are not singing victory songs just yet. "We will continue to resist damaging projects like El Cimarron," said Ricardo Navarro, a winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize and president of the group CESTA. "This is a permanent struggle."

President Funes asked the National Energy Council to work on an energy development plan for the country that would include a recommendation on whether this dam is needed or not. "There is a need to analyze the possibility of a design of the project that would take into account environmental and social factors which we must respect," President Funes said. The new policy is expected to be ready in May of this year.

This is a good opportunity for the National Energy Council to examine some of the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams (WCD).

Meanwhile, construction of El Chaparral Dam on the Torola River and the expansion of a dam called "5 de Noviembre" on the Lempa River have begun. The two projects are expected to add 147 MW of capacity, equivalent to approximately 15% of the nation's present energy demand. El Chaparral Dam will flood 8.5 square kilometers of forest habitat. Environmentalists fear a spread of dengue fever, already present in the region.

El Salvador depends on oil imports, hydro, and geothermal energy for its energy supply. In recent years studies have been conducted to identify solar, natural gas, micro-hydro, wind and biomass potential, and expansion of geothermal energy. Some energy efficiency programs have been adopted, but experts say there is much more that could be done. In a changing climate, moving towards a greater reliance on hydropower is not the best option.

We congratulate communities in El Salvador who have called attention to the social and environmental impacts and costs of these dam projects. And we hope that a new and better energy plan that respects people's rights and rivers emerges for El Salvador.

More information: 

Politica Energetica de El Salvador 2007