Saturday, October 13, 2007

CHILE: Mega Dams, Mega Impacts, Mega Half-Truths

SANTIAGO, Sep 25 (IPS) - An organisation in the Aysén region in the south of Chile which opposes the building of five hydroelectric stations on two large rivers has made a documentary film about the reactions of communities affected by dams and power lines in Chile and Argentina.

"People who watch the documentary have their eyes opened immediately," Marco Díaz, president of the Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia, told IPS. The group has 600 members and is located in the city of Cochrane in the Aysén region, 2,000 kilometres south of Santiago.

In May, Díaz and journalist Carlos Garrido recorded on film the testimonies of people affected by the Pangue and Ralco hydroelectric stations in the Bío-Bío region of Chile, and by the high tension lines from the General San Martín dam in the southern Argentine province of Chubut.

The aim of the film, titled "Mega represas, mega impactos, mega verdades" (Mega Dams, Mega Impacts, Mega Truths), is to alert the population of Aysén about the potential effects of the five hydroelectric power stations that the HidroAysén company intends to build on the Baker and Pascua rivers.

The dams and power stations are projected to be built from 2009 onwards, with an investment of close to 2.5 billion dollars.

The plan for the five generating stations was presented in mid-2005 by Endesa, a Spanish energy company, but the sheer size of the project led the firm to form a partnership in 2006 with Colbún, a Chilean energy company controlled by the local Matte group, giving rise to HidroAysén.

Endesa holds 51 percent of the shares in HidroAysén, and Colbún 49 percent.

The five dams would generate a total of 2,750 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to 18,430 gigawatt-hours per year. Transmitting the power to Santiago will entail the construction of 2,000 kilometres of towers bearing high tension cables running across eight of the country’s regions.

The initial plan was to flood 9,300 hectares of pristine wilderness, but due to objections raised by the ministry of Public Works, on Aug. 9 HidroAysén announced that the area to be flooded by the dams would be reduced by 36.5 percent, to 5,910 hectares.

Environmental organisations are not satisfied with this, however, because they are only in favour of small dams that do not involve damming entire rivers or flooding lands, in order to preserve livestock raising and tourism activities in the south of Chile.

In contrast, HidroAysén argues that the two hydroelectric stations on the Baker river and the three on the Pascua offer a development opportunity for the country and for the region, which has a population of 91,492 and an area of 108,494 square kilometres. The company is also promising to improve road, airport and telecommunications infrastructure in the region, reduce the local cost of electricity, create 4,000 jobs, invest in schools and hospitals, and develop cultural and tourism activities.

At issue is covering the country’s energy demand, which is expected to grow by 6.8 percent a year between 2008 and 2017.

Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman and Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte have avoided making any pronouncements on the project, as the company’s environmental impact assessment will not be presented for evaluation until next year.

Tokman has stressed that the electricity the dams would generate "is not surplus to requirements," since by 2010 an extra 10,000 megawatts will be needed in the central grid system which serves over 90 percent of the country’s population.

To inform local residents about the dams, HidroAysén has laid on a permanent, mobile "open house" programme, as well as a major advertising campaign in the local media, Díaz said.

But the "Mega represas, mega impactos, mega verdades" film shows what the company has not wanted local people to know, the activist said. It has been screened in more than six locations in the region, and there have already been requests for copies from other regions in Chile and from abroad.

Here is the full article.

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