Belo Monte, "The Worst Engineering Project in the History of Brazil"

Zachary Hurwitz
Pimental Island, site of Belo Monte's secondary dam, entering the Big Bend
Pimental Island, site of Belo Monte's secondary dam, entering the Big Bend
Zachary Hurwitz/International Rivers

Another engineer has critiqued the Belo Monte Dam on technical and economic grounds, joining scores of experts who predict that the infrastructure project will be a massive failure. Walter Coronado Antunes, the former Secretary of the Environment of the state of São Paulo, and ex-President of the influential state water and sanitation utility Sabesp, stated that, if built, Belo Monte Dam would be "the worst engineering project in the history of hydroelectric dams in Brazil, and perhaps of any engineering project in the world.  A true shame for us engineers." 

In the July issue of the Journal of the Brazilian Engineering Institute, Coronado Antunes makes the same claim that experts have made all along, including here, here, and here. Namely, that the Xingu River's huge variations in flow between summer (when the river level decreases) and winter months (when the river levels increase again) will spell technical and economic disaster for the dam.  

Download the journal article (in Portuguese).

The crux of the matter has always revolved around what the technical documents call the "Consensual Hydrogram": the minimum downstream release that is necessary to meet the basic conditions of life for the Juruna and Arara tribes, riverbank families, and the plethora of species that live on a 100 km-stretch of the Xingu River called the "Big Bend." With no transparency, and no consultation with the people whose lives Belo Monte will affect, officials set the Consensual Hydrogram at 700 m3/s (summer) and as low as 4000 m3/s (winter); in other words, 700 cubic meters of water need to flow through the Big Bend every second during the summer, in order to preserve life.

Instream Flow Statistics Xingu River
Instream Flow Statistics Xingu River
Empresa de Pesquisa Energética

However, during dry years in the Xingu Basin (which are becoming more and more severe thanks to deforestation and climate change), it will be harder and harder for the dam operators to maintain the Consensual Hydrogram and still generate enough electricity to meet the expected returns of investors.  Coronado Antunes continued: "in years of low river flow, Belo Monte will be disastrous; during eight months, there will not be enough water to move even the secondary turbines; all of the turbines of the main generator will be stopped, sitting on a potential of 11,000 megawatts, for eight months."

So, the question remains: what's all the investment for? In the journal article, Coronado Antunes asks the same question. That is, for US$17 billion dollars, for the largest loan and smallest interest rates in the history of the Brazilian National Development Bank, for the siphoning of workers' pension funds, for all the impacts Belo Monte will bring, and at a cost of almost 75% of what it cost to build the Itaipu Dam, Brazil will receive a measly pittance of electricity for four months out of the year.  

Indeed, truly a shame.  

It's almost as if, through the statistics of the engineers, the Xingu River is screaming, out loud: "I am not supposed to be dammed."