True Costs of Amazon Dam Revealed

by Glenn Switkes
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The true costs of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Project, planned for the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon, will be much higher than dam proponents admit, according to a new independent review by a panel of 40 specialists.

The Xingu River
The Xingu River
by Sue Cunningham

The panel found that the dam would have serious consequences for the region, its inhabitants, and ecosystems of the Amazon rainforest. In addition, its potential for contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions is high.

The panel - comprised of scientists from major Brazilian research institutions - reviewed the project's environmental impact assessment and delivered a 230-page report to Ibama, the Brazilian government's environmental agency, on October 1.

In early November, a judge in Altamira, Brazil ordered the dam's licensing process suspended, and ordered new public hearings on the project. Ibama is currently evaluating the project and was expected to issue a provisional license soon. The judge's actions could delay the government plans to offer the concession for the project by December.

Cutting off the flow

One of the most alarming impacts identified by the specialists is that Belo Monte Dam would require diverting more than 80% of the flow of the Xingu, with impacts to fish, forests and navigation along a 100-km stretch of the river inhabited by indigenous communities. Impacts to fisheries would be severe, with the project causing the death of millions of fish along the river's Big Bend. The dam would cause the loss of biodiversity along the Xingu including the possibility of species extinctions. The changes to the river's flow could compound lower flows caused by climate change. The Amazon is already experiencing reduced flows from a warming climate, according to a 2009 study by the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The experts also found that the number of people who would be directly affected by the dam is likely far greater than the 19,000 indicated in official studies. More than 40,000 people could be affected.

Belo Monte Dam would be the world's third largest dam project in "installed capacity" if not in actual energy production. Despite having an installed generating capacity of 11,231 MW, it would generate as little as 1,000 MW during the three- to four-month low-water season.

Francisco Hernandez, electrical engineer and cocoordinator of the panel, said: "The expert panel's report highlights the folly of Belo Monte. The project could cost up to US$19 billion, making it an extremely inefficient investment given that the dam will generate only a fraction of its installed capacity during the dry season. And this doesn't even take into account the enormous social costs and environmental devastation that the project would cause. No one knows the true costs of Belo Monte."

The issue of greenhouse gas emissions from a mega-dam in the Amazon rainforest was also addressed by the panel. Philip Fearnside, Ecologist from the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA), said that although the EIA affirms that hydroelectric dams have lower emissions than thermoelectric plants of the same capacity, studies in Brazil showed that Amazon dams emitted more than gas-powered plants. "Hydroelectric dams emit methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times greater impact on global warming per ton than carbon dioxide," Fearnside notes. "The authors of the EIA calculate low methane emissions because they only consider gas emitted on the surface of the lake itself and not from the huge amount of water passing through the turbines and spillway."

Research commissioned by International Rivers in 2005 revealed major greenhouse gas emissions from an earlier design of the dam complex, which included a large upstream reservoir to make Belo Monte economically viable during the dry season. The government now says it no longer plans to build the upstream dam, which places Belo Monte's economic viability in doubt.

If the project includes the expected series of large dams and dikes needed to make it economically viable, it would require "moving a volume of earth and rocks on the scale of that excavated for the building of the Panama Canal," the panel states.

The US$9 billion project is the largest in the Brazilian government's Growth Acceleration Program, which focuses on large-scale infrastructure projects, yet there has been little public debate regarding its impacts. The government seems uninterested in debate on this flagship project - one of 120 new large dams proposed for the Amazon.

Brazilian Indians from 14 ethnic groups are threatening violence if the government goes ahead with the dam, which would be Brazil's second largest. "We are demanding the government definitively cancel plans for this hydroelectric plant. If it decides to begin work on Belo Monte, the Xingu Indians will respond with ‘warlike actions,'" that federation of Amazon tribes said in a Nov. 3 letter to Brazilian President Lula da Silva.

In October, Brazil's energy minister called Belo Monte's critics "demoniac forces that are trying to pull Brazil down."