Anti–Dam Activists Target the Aluminum Industry

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

WASHINGTON, Dec 5, 2001 (Inter Press Service via COMTEX) –– An expected surge in world demand for energy–intensive aluminum products could fuel construction of environmentally ruinous dams from the Amazon to Mozambique, activists warn.

Demand for cans and a host of other aluminum products is being driven by population growth and international trade.

"This increased demand will create a need for new smelters, which will continue to place a very heavy burden on the world’s rivers, its atmosphere and on other resources," says Lori Pottinger, Southern Africa campaign director for the U.S.–bases advocacy group International Rivers.

Aluminum production is one of the most energy–intensive industries, using at least 250 gigawatt–hours of electricity, or about two percent of global energy consumption, each year, she says. The electricity required to smelt a ton of aluminum, according to the Washington–based Worldwatch Institute, could power the average U.S. household for one and a half years. More than half the aluminum industry’s energy supply comes from hydropower, with many aluminum companies building dams solely to supply their smelters. Some of the world’s more environmentally and socially disruptive dams have been built to meet the industry’s energy demands, says Pottinger.

Construction of Ghana’s Akosombo Dam, she says, involved the forced resettlement of 80,000 people and resulted in drastically higher levels of waterborne diseases including schistosomiasis. Canada’s Kenney Dam diverted almost 40 percent of the Nechako River’s flow and greatly reduced fishery production, thus harming indigenous people’s livelihoods."None of these dams would have been built without the aluminum smelters pushing them," says Pottinger.

Robin King, a spokesperson for the Aluminum Association, a Washington–based business group, acknowledges that industry players have used hydropower as a key energy resource for more than 30 years. But, he says, governments around the world have pushed just as hard for hydropower as a source of energy for smelters.

"The governments have encouraged the use of water as an energy resource for decades and industry remains with this government promoted position," King told IPS.

Environmentalists are fighting plans to construct a series of 14 dams on the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers in the Brazilian Amazon. A consortium of aluminum heavyweights, including U.S.–based Alcoa and British BHP–Billiton, are pushing for the construction of several of these dams to supply energy for proposed smelters.

These dams would negatively impact the rainforest, flood protected areas and reserves for indigenous tribes, and require the forced relocation of several thousand families, Brazilian, European, and U.S. environmental organizations said last month in a letter to the business consortium. Signatories included the Brazil’s Movement of Dam–Affected People and Forum Carajas Brasil.

"The construction of dams in the rainforest to provide energy for aluminum plants runs counter to all definitions of sustainable development, and to efforts under way by the countries of the Amazon region and governments worldwide to protect rainforest ecosystems," the letter stated.

Environmental groups in Mozambique are fighting a similar battle against the proposed $1.2 billion Mepanda Nkuwa Dam on the Zambezi River. This would be constructed to allow the expansion of an existing aluminum smelter on the outskirts of Maputo, the capital.

A consortium led by BHP–Billiton, with financing from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, aims to expand the smelter to an eventual capacity of 500,000 tons of aluminum ingots using raw alumina from its Worsley mine in Australia.

According to the Mozambique–based group Livaningo, the proposed dam would exacerbate existing environmental problems caused by the upstream dams, Cahora Bassa and Kariba. These have trapped silt carried by the river and have negatively impacted the ecologically sensitive Zambezi delta and its mangrove swamps.

Mepanda Nkuwa also would displace some 2,000 people from its 100 square kilometer reservoir, says the organization.

The people to be resettled are "primarily pastoralists who are struggling to rebuild their herds, which were decimated during the protracted civil war," says Ryan Hoover, a campaigner with International Rivers.

Anabela Lemos, of Livaningo, says if the existing Cahora Bassa Dam went forward with plans to add an additional 600 megawatts of power, there would be enough additional energy to supply the expanded smelter."If Cahora Bassa Dam was better managed, there would be no need for another dam to be built," says Lemos.

A proposed hydropower project in eastern Iceland that would be built to power a proposed aluminum smelter also faces resistance from environmental groups.

A joint venture of the Norwegian multinational company Norsk Hydro and the Icelandic national utility Landsvirkjun, the project includes plans to dam the rivers of the Vatnajoekull glacier in order to deliver 750 megawatts of electricity for the Reydaral aluminum smelter, which has an annual projected output of 420,000 tons.

According to Arni Finnsson, chair of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, the Noral Project would negatively impact the wilderness area of the Icelandic highlands, including valued waterfalls and crucial reindeer habitat.

"More than 100 waterfalls, including some of the most beautiful in the country, would be drowned by the dams," says Finnsson.

The fate of the project is still being decided. In August, the Icelandic Planning Agency dealt a blow to the scheme, when it said that the project would have excessive environmental effects including negative impact on groundwater, vegetation, birds, and agriculture.

Environmentalists argue that in order to meet the projected demand for more aluminum, nations and companies should focus more on recycling existing products instead of building new smelters.

Although the Aluminum Association promotes recycling, activists say that in most nations industry and government are not doing enough to promote recycling.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a U.S.–based advocacy group, recycling of aluminum in the United States actually dropped from a high of 65 percent in 1992 to 54.5 percent in 2000. In comparison, countries that strongly promote recycling and waste reduction have higher rates of aluminum recycling. Sweden, for example, recycled 87 percent of its aluminum cans in 2000 and Japan, about 74 percent.CRI’s Jennifer Gitlitz says the United States is not the only country wasting aluminum.

"While some countries have achieved extremely high rates of recycling, the trend is that canned beverages are becoming increasingly popular in places that have not yet developed a recycling infrastructure," she says.Gitlitz and International Rivers are urging governments to pass laws, as Germany has, requiring aluminum can manufacturers to take them back when consumers are finished.

Governments can also set energy–efficiency standards and reduce subsidies to aluminum companies, creating a more level playing field for materials that could compete with aluminum, they argue.

"If aluminum reflected the true costs of its production," says International Rivers’s Pottinger, "the resulting price hikes would certainly increase the value of recycled aluminum as well as increase the price of primary aluminum."

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