New Hope for Patagonian River: Dams in Argentina Suspended

Maria Marta di Paola
Río Santa Cruz, in Argentinean Patagonia.
Río Santa Cruz, in Argentinean Patagonia.
Pablo Hernández
On December 21, Argentina’s Supreme Court delivered a win to Argentina’s environmental groups, suspending dam construction on the Santa Cruz River.

The Santa Cruz River is one of the last, largest free-flowing rivers in Argentina. Its originates from two glacial lakes, Viedma and Argentino, in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981.

The Kirchner-Cepernic Complex, a highly contentious hydroelectric project in Argentina, would construct two dams on the river. Scientists and activists have expressed doubts about its environmental and financial feasibility, and suggested it doesn’t comply with Argentina’s laws. The Supreme Court, in making its decision to suspend the project, cited the impact the dams would have on glaciers in Patagonia.

History of the Project

In January 2013, the works were awarded to a consortium formed by two Argentinian enterprises and China Gezhouba Group Company Limited. The consortium’s bid amounted to US$4,715,347,111 and envisaged the construction would be complete in five and a half years. The loan agreement was signed by China Development Bank Corporation (CDB), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited, and Bank of China Limited. The project will generate 5% of national power but it will imply a 14% increase in our national debt.

Last September, we had the opportunity to present this case at International Rivers’ office in Beijing.  It was a great experience to share strategies on engaging with Chinese funders and builders and also to exchange information about our work trying to reach out Chinese actors in this project. It seems a faraway project but, as we are going to see, its impacts may affect all of us more than we imagine.

Patagonia's magnificent Río Santa Cruz, one of the last large free-flowing rivers in Argentina.
Patagonia's magnificent Río Santa Cruz, one of the last large free-flowing rivers in Argentina.
Fernando de Gorocica, Wikimedia Commons

Enviromental Concerns

The Kirchner-Cepernic Complex will alter the course of the Santa Cruz River and turn over 50% of it into stagnant reservoirs. This will clearly affect the river’s volume while leaving 47,000 hectares of our Patagonia under the water. This project may generate irreversible loss of and severe damage to the rich biodiversity, flora and limnological communities, as well as cultural values. In particular, the Perito Moreno Glacier may be affected by the fact that the height of the Argentino Lake will no longer depend on natural level changes but on the country’s power demand. 

Economic Concerns

According to official information, the Kirchner-Cepernic Complex is not the best-ranked energy project; there are at least twelve better-ranked projects with more promising economic, social, energy and environmental feasibility. Both dams are expected to contribute to the Electric Power National Interconnected System, but the grid could not handle the project’s energy: Technical studies indicate that the dams will be located in an area where high voltage power lines can only transport 43% of the energy produced. 

Public Consultation Concerns

Although the developers did conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultation process, it was characterized by the absence of essential information and serious shortcomings that prevented effective and genuine public participation. The EIA lacked information on how the Santa Cruz River diversion will affect biodiversity in these critical and fragile ecosystems – especially in glaciers and the periglacial environment. Without such information, we cannot make a comprehensive assessment of the dams’  environmental impacts. Moreover, the main defects of the EIA process – both in terms of design and implementation – caused such state of affairs to continue. 

In consequence, the Patagonian Environmental Lawyers Association and the Forest Bank Foundation decided to take action legal action against National State and Santa Cruz Province in the Supreme Court of Justice  of the Nation (CSJN). The groups pointed out the defects of the environmental impact assessment processes, especially the fact that the appropriate environmental impact studies were not conducted. This led the Supreme Court to decide to suspend the construction of the dams.

The Voice of the Supreme Court

The CSJN decided unanimously to suspend work on the dams until such time as EIA process and a hearing, as required under Argentina’s Environmental Impact Law on Water Works for Energy (law 23,879), have been implemented. These had not been in force previously due to improper regulation.

Law 23,879 sets out a very specific EIA procedure. Given that the project affects provinces outside Santa Cruz, three national ministries (Environment and Sustainable Development, Energy and Mining, and Health) will now be involved during the initial stages, which include the supervision and approval of impact studies. These studies will then be submitted to the National Congress, which will participate in the EIA process, analyze its results and submit them to a public hearing in which the government and representatives of companies, NGOs, researchers, academics and interested members of the public will participate. Once this procedure is completed, both Chambers will produce a report for approval.

Another key issue is the “cross default” clause. The financing agreement signed with CDB for the dams also includes finance for the Belgrano-Cargas Railway. As such, the cancellation one project could halt the financing of others. So while the hydroelectric complex is already dependent on a proper feasibility analysis, it also depends on the receipt of funds for other infrastructure works.

A New Chance for the Santa Cruz River

The decision of the Supreme Court issued at the end of December 2016 presents an opportunity to analyze and evaluate dam construction on the Santa Cruz River.

We hope that the process initiated by the Supreme Court will demonstrate the serious impact that the construction of dams would have on the Santa Cruz River. There is an urgent need to find other, more effective and viable solutions to Argentina’s energy needs.

Maria Marta is economy and environmental policy coordinator at Argentinian NGO FARN. She has a masters in international relations and a bachelors degree in economics and agrcultural administration, both from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), where she works as researcher in the department of the agronomy.

Thursday, January 26, 2017