Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chile's Puelo River Project Draws Argentine Critics

Plans by Spanish-owned electricity company Endesa to dam Region X’s Puelo River have so far generated little public attention here in Chile. The project has, however, become quite a hot topic in neighboring Argentina, where activists and even a provincial legislator are threatening to turn the hydroelectric scheme into a major international conflict.

The Patagonia Times reported earlier this month that Endesa, already at the center of a major controversy over its so-called Aysén Project (a US$2.5 billion plan to dam Region XI’s Baker and Pascua Rivers), is now turning its attention to the Puelo River (PT, June 4). The Puelo, which begins in Argentina’s Lake Puelo and flows west to the Pacific Ocean, is Chile’s second most voluminous river – after the Baker.

The company’s plans include a large, 320 MW dam on the Puelo River, an accompanying 5,000-hectare (12,300-acre) reservoir, plus two smaller “run-of-the-river” dams to be built along the nearby Manso River. In total the project would produce roughly 720 MW and could cost as much as US$650 million.

Though still at an early stage, Endesa’s latest hydro scheme has attracted a handful of Chilean critics who worry about its possible environmental impact. As with all large-scale dam-reservoir complexes, the Puelo river project would involve major flooding that in addition to displacing residents, would also drown native forests and permanently alter the area’s existing ecosystem.

The project could also affect Region X’s Reloncaví Sound, a large bay into which the Puelo River flows. According to Mauricio Fierro of the Puerto Montt-based environmental group Geoaustral, the river provides about 60 percent of Reloncaví’s oxygen. That oxygen, in turn, sustains the area’s lucrative aquaculture industry which, if the river is dammed, could suffer dramatically.

“If the flow is cut, who knows what could happen,” Fierro told the Patagonia Times. “All the salmon and shellfish farms could disappear because they wouldn’t have oxygen… Everything that’s down there could die.”

Despite Fierro’s concerns, the Puelo River plan – unlike Endesa’s high-profile Aysén Project – has not grabbed the attention of Chile’s mainstream press. Nor has the issue yet become a topic of discussion within political circles.

That’s not, however, been the case in neighboring Argentina, where people in places like El Bolsón – located approximately 20 kilometers north of Lake Puelo – have been organizing an increasingly visible campaign against the project.

Why, if the project is slated for Chile, does it matter to people across the border?

For starters, Endesa is planning to dam a river that for all intents and purposes is Argentine – at least that’s where the Puelo begins. The project also threatens to alter the climate on both sides of the border, argue opponents like Alejandro Nebbia of the Argentine Network of Environmental Educators. Of particular concern is the proposed reservoir, a massive artificial lake that – through the natural evaporation process – will change nearby weather patterns and humidity levels.

Here is the full article.