To dam Patagonia or not…that is the question?

Protests and police have dominated the news in recent weeks in Chile! Amongst many issues that people have been taking to the streets for is a mega hydro-electrical project called HidroAysen which is being given the green light in Patagonia! This project would see 5 mega dams being built on the largest two rivers in Chile (the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Aysen region down south) as well as over 2000km of transmission lines to get the energy to the central region and Santiago in particular. This project has received widespread condemnation from citizens throughout Chile and there have been numerous protests across cities big and small. The opposition to this project has even spread as far afield as Europe where protests were held outside Chilean embassies in Germany, France and Spain!

A musical protest organised by the various NGOs operating under the name "Patagonia sin Represas" (Patagonia without Dams). This is a famous band in Chile called Inti-Illimani who say and protested against the dictatorship in the 1970´s and are now lending their voices to the anti-HidroAysen movement!

This project leaves the country seriously divided with some people saying that it is essential in order to meet Chile´s growing energy demands and to ensure that the country is able to develop and fight poverty! Others say that this is a lie and that the energy is mostly going to be used by the mining industry and is going to create no benefits for the average Chilean person and especially not the poorer end of the spectrum. Those in favour say that hydropower is a clean, sustainable and renewable source of energy and based on Chile´s geography it is the most logical way to develop “home-grown” energy! Those against it say that hydro projects destroy not only vast tracts of pristine forests, but also have a huge impact on the ecology of river systems and that Chile should be focusing on other forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind and wave.

Is Chile facing an energy crisis?

Advertisements by the company HidroAysen have over the last few months tried to install a sense of fear in the Chilean people. What do people think when they see an advert that shows a hospital operating theatre experiencing a blackout because someone in another part of the city turned on a hairdryer! This is a blatant terror campaign to try and garner support from the mostly uninformed Chilean public. My question is why should HidroAysen even have to advertise in the first place???

But the energy debate in Chile is a serious one, and unfortunately despite trying to read as much information from all sides as possible, it is one I am still trying to get my head around. There is no doubt that countries such as Chile need energy to develop, but the debate is around the forecasting of energy needs into the future and the sources of that energy.

According to the government, electricity demand in Chile is growing at a rate of 7% per annum which will lead to a doubling of energy consumption in the next ten years. It is this figure that is being used by the government to justify the support for HidroAysen. However, a study conducted by two engineers in Universidad de Chile dispute these figures and they have some very interesting points as to why these figures are false.   

The government used the observed trend in energy consumption and growth between 1970 and 2010 to determine the figure of 7% annual growth which is predicted to continue up to 2050. However the study I refer to above states that this assumption fails to take into account major changes in the energy sector, both at a global and national level. According to the authors, increasing prices for conventional fuels; changes in technology particularly regarding energy efficiency; new technologies that did not exist a decade ago; higher costs of conventional energy (including large scale hydro) due to more stringent environmental standards and changes in energy consumption are all factors that make it very difficult to use the trend over the last 30 or 40 years to predict the future trend in energy growth.

In addition, energy consumption trends in Chile are not uniform across the country and consumption levels and growth are rather different between the north and central regions. Chile consists of two major electricity transmission systems, basically one for the north and one for the centre of the country. Energy consumption in the northern system is principally used by the mining industry (85% of the total) whilst the bulk of the energy in the central system is used by the industrial and residential sectors. 80% of the country´s population lives in the central region and thus it is logical that the residential sector uses the majority of the energy in the central system, however mining and industry still accounts for between 30 and 40% of energy use.

In the period 1993-2010 energy demand in Chile grew by an average of 6.8% which is the figure being used by the government. However, this figure does not take into account the differences in growth between the northern and central regions. The northern region saw an average growth in energy demand of 22% which is a tenfold increase in 18 years and this clearly demonstrates the strength and growth of the country´s mining industry which dominates the northern region. Nevertheless in the same 18 year period, energy growth for the central region only grew by 5.4% annually. And even more importantly an analysis of only the last 10 years shows that the average annual increase in total energy consumption between the two systems was only 4% (5% for the northern system and 3.9% for the central system). This is considerably lower than the official 7% figure used to justify HidroAysen. Especially since HidroAysen would provide electricity to the central region which has seen lower growth in consumption than the energy hungry northern region.    

Chile´s government is saying that in order for the country to achieve the economic development it wants, it needs alot more energy. However, the argument that energy consumption has to grow at the same rate as GDP is false and over the last few decades many OECD countries have shown a divergence between economic and energy growth rates. Chile is also starting to show the same trends – economic growth for 2010 was 5.2% whilst electricity demand from 2009 to 2010 rose by only 2.8%. Granted, the global economic crisis during this time has to be taken into account; however the trend is still compelling to show the divergence.

So without bombarding you with numerous numbers and statistics, the main point of this study is that it is incredibly important to project energy demand based on the current reality but also with thoughts towards how past trends will evolve and change in the near and distant future. This is an incredibly complex issue which seems to have been oversimplified by the numbers and assumptions used by the government. The danger with this simplification is that it paves the way for mega projects which will lead to unnecessary environmental destruction, increase energy costs and delay advances in energy efficiency and the adoption of other forms of renewable energy.  

Political pressure undermines environmental laws and processes

I am certainly no expert in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), but it is clear to me from what I have read of the EIA process relating to HidroAysen that there are numerous flaws that seem to have been overlooked (or ignored) by decision-makers!

1) The first problem is that the EIA and approval process for the dams is totally separate to the same process needed for the transmission line. Apparently the reason for this is that the dams and lines are two separate projects being undertaken by separate companies. However, one without the other is totally useless and thus if the dams are given the go ahead, it is only logical that the transmission lines will too and thus the responsible company will not have to actually put any effort into the EIA process as the outcome is already a foregone conclusion.

The line is going to have even more of a serious environmental and social impact on the south of Chile than the actual dams. A 2300km long, 100m wide scar (the longest on earth) ripping through national parks and protected forests and wetlands as well as traversing one of the most geologically active regions of the world with numerous active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. Not to mention the thousands of property owners and communities across 7 regions that will be affected. The line will consist of over 6000 towers; each 70m high placed every 400m! The impact is huge!!! But the EIA process for this project has not even begun…

Serious questions have to be asked as to why the dam and transmission line projects were not required to undertake the assessment process concurrently! In essence they are one project!

2) It seems that various state agencies have buckled under political pressure for the project. In the initial round of comments from public agencies, CONAF (The National Forestry Agency) filed tough comments focused mainly on the fact that one of the dams would flood part of the Laguna San Rafael National Park (which is also proclaimed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve). However, when it came to further rounds of the EIA process, CONAF seemed to have changed its tune and only submitted two very weak comments. The agency stated that “HidroAysen would not affect extraordinary or scientifically interesting parts of Laguna San Rafael National Park and therefore could be approved.”  

But this is where signs of foul play start…it seems this statement was not the view of the regional CONAF office in Aysen and in December 2010 the Workers Union of CONAF in Aysen and the National Union of Professionals in CONAF released a joint declaration to inform the public that the final submission from CONAF did not represent the work of the regional analysts. According to the statement, the regional office submitted much tougher comments stating that flooding part of a national park would violate international and national laws and therefore the project should not receive the necessary environmental permits. Sadly the CONAF head office did not seem to agree with the views of its own professionals and experts and gave the project the green light!!! Does anybody else find this incredibly fishy!!!

Besides the blatant fraud, I think Chile is playing with fire if it overlooks national laws and allows even the smallest, most “ecologically insignificant” part of a national park to be destroyed. What kind of a precedent is the country setting…mining in Torres del Paine or Conguillio next!!! It seems the laws that declare areas national parks and protected areas are no longer worth the paper they are written on…and that makes me incredibly sad!  

3) Without boring you with too many small details, other apparent flaws in the EIA process (both the original document and the addendum) included the use of incomplete data, a poor analysis of the impact of climate change and poor public participation.

But enough about the EIA process, there are further issues of foul play from a political level and these include the Aysen Regional Environmental Commission that was appointed by the current president to evaluate the final EIA etc and say yes or no to the project. On 9 May that Commission met in Coyhaique, the capital of the Aysen region and sadly they approved the project. This commission has also been shrouded in controversy… four of the local authorities involved in evaluating the project as part of this Commission (local ministers for housing, economy, mining and environment) should not have been involved at all due to commercial links with the company proposing the project. These commission members did recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest, however other members did not and conflict of interest charges were filed against the regional Governor and other representatives before the final vote was cast. However, the charges did not manage to get an injunction on the Commission´s vote and it went ahead as planned.

So, to end this incredibly long post…where does Chile go from here? The short answer is that I have no idea…

Whether HidroAysen actually goes ahead or not, it seems like a shift has begun in how people view energy in this country and more importantly it has become obvious to most people how weak and inappropriate the environmental laws and processes are. If anything, I hope all the protests etc will provide the impetus and pressure for the government to make some very necessary changes.

But who knows, renewable energy sources in their own right are extremely complicated, expensive and will take up even more surface area than the dams and require the same transmission lines…there is definitely no easy, clear solution to this problem. I will continue to watch this story with much interest and try and understand the complex issue of energy, environment and economy more…

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4 Responses to To dam Patagonia or not…that is the question?

  1. Rodrigo Ferrada says:

    Great analisys, como siempre

  2. Daniel wybrow says:

    Loved your piece. Its clear that political expediency wins again sadly. Let’s hope that someone listens. The environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive (maybe I’m naïve).

    • ingridckoch says:

      Hey my friend. If you are naive, then so am I. I totally agree that environment and development are not mutually exclusive. I find it amazing how similar the issues are here in Chile to South Africa. Same rubbish politics too unfortunately…
      Thanks for reading and commenting! I love the feedback.
      Miss you loads

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