Amid water crisis, Bolivia plans hydroelectric “mega-dams” despite opposition

Vigil of indigenous communities on the Beni River, the place where the government wants to build the megadams. (Photo credit: Amazon Defense Coordinating Committee via Facebook)

Bolivia has been in the midst of a major water crisis for more than a year now. Residents of the city of La Paz are under strict rationing rules. Glaciers are melting at an alarming pace. What was once the country’s second-largest lake has dried up. But some would argue that a major factor behind the crisis is an economic model that prioritizes the needs of resource-thirsty industries over those of ordinary citizens.

Mining operations are guzzling away at rivers and now the government has plans to construct so-called ‘mega-dams’ in the Amazon region to generate hydroelectric power for export. Indigenous communities in the dams’ paths are teaming up with environmentalists and civil society organizations to stop the projects in their tracks. Aldo Orellana López has more.

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The Bolivian government has revived a long-dormant plan to turn the Amazon region into an energy hub. The plan calls for the construction of two large hydroelectric dams on the Beni River and infrastructure to export the power generated to neighboring countries.

President Evo Morales estimates the project would cost around $6 billion and, once operational, would bring in more than $1 billion a year.

But indigenous communities in the region of the planned project say they’re unwilling to pay the human costs of the so-called mega-dams. They also warn the environmental impact would be staggering, due to the role of water cycles in the Amazon region’s complex ecosystem.

“The Amazon is a delicate eco-region that greatly depends on its balance of water, on the course of its rivers, on the places where that water pools. These are areas within the National System of Protected Areas,” explains Sarela Paz, an expert in protected natural reserves. “These are also areas protected by their own indigenous communities because those communities depend on the well being and balance of the ecosystems within those territories.”

According to a leaked environmental impact assessment, the two dams will flood an area larger the city of La Paz, affecting around 4,000 people in 17 communities within and near the flood zone.

Indigenous T´simanes, Tacanas, Mosetenes and Uchupiamonas roundly reject the project, saying it never went through the formal consultation required by the country’s constitution and international accords.

While Bolivia is no longer the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere, the Morales administration’s economic policy relies heavily on natural resource extraction, which has repeatedly caused confrontation with indigenous communities in resource rich areas.

“At this moment, we – as indigenous peoples – are in resistance mode and demanding that the Bolivian government bring the policies it has adopted in line with our current laws,” says Alex Villca, a spokesperson for the Amazon Defense Coordinating Committee. “We have a constitution with multiple articles that back up and support the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Others have raised questions about the financial viability of the mega-dam project. Some analysts warn the cost of building two dams and transmission lines to neighboring countries will likely cost far more than $6 billion.

Marco Gandarillas, Director of the Bolivian Center for Information and Investigation – CEDIB – says the project is unlikely to be profitable due to high costs and energy market volatility.

“The Bolivian government believes the era of gas has passed and that few reserves are likely to be discovered,” according to Gandarillas. “They have little hope of finding huge reserves and are thus concentrating on a very aggressive plan to build at least 17 hydroelectric projects, many of them with the intent of expanding upon energy exports.”

Last November, residents of indigenous communities near the planned sites along the Beni River issued alerts about the arrival of heavy equipment of the company hired by the government to make the final studies to build the dams. They immediately began round-the-clock vigils in the area and the company withdrew its equipment weeks later.

The government has yet to comment on the incident, but has said many times it plans to move ahead with the project to build the dams.

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