HidroAysén is a $3 to $4 billion hydroelectric scheme that, if fully realized, would build five massive dams by 2020 in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. Two would go on the Baker River, three more on the Pascua – along with 1,500 miles of transmission lines.
The dams would capture the furious turquoise flow emanating from the two largest ice caps outside Greenland and Antarctica to spin turbines for electricity. The transmission lines would run north, held by towers more than 200 feet high. Following a winding corridor almost 400 feet wide, a thousand miles of forest would be clear-cut and the rest of the corridor’s path similarly cleared. The corridor would intersect 64 communities and 14 protected areas. It would divide endangered forests and some of Chile’s most spectacular national parks.
With all dams functioning, the lines would deliver 2,750 megawatts of electricity to Chile’s central grid – approximately 20% of the nation’s current total. The country’s urban and industrial areas around Santiago would consume some of it. But the energy is most needed to supplement the growing demands of the lucrative mining operations that lie farther north.
The mining industry, mostly foreign owned, consumes an estimated 37% of Chile’s energy, more than any other user. As one observer wrote, Chile does not have an “energy problem,” it has a “mining problem.”
Most who live in Patagonia make their meager livings from the land. Environmentalists, both local and foreign, love the region’s spectacular landscapes and see significant economic potential in its growing eco-tourism industry. These are two groups that have not always seen eye to eye. But the imminent flooding of the region’s farms and pastures, displacement of its families, ruin of its wild rivers and pristine wilderness and industrialization of its pastoral economy have brought them together to oppose the project.
The force behind the project is Endesa, formerly a state-owned enterprise that was given free and exclusive water rights to almost all of Patagonia’s rivers by the government. Though Endesa was later sold to foreign investors, the company still continues to control much of Chile’s water. Transelec, a Canadian company, is slated to build the transmission lines. Colbún, owned by Chilean billionaire Eliodoro Matte, is Endesa’s Chilean partner. Chile’s government supports the project.
Though the five dams would be an unmitigated disaster for the Aysén, the transmission lines are seen by many as perhaps the most troubling aspect of the project. Once they are in place, no river from Aysén to Santiago would be safe from dams.
There are alternatives that would meet Chile’s energy needs: ample wind and solar, dynamic geothermal, as well as powerful tides. Small, high-altitude hydro facilities could also do much to help meet demand without devastating the region.
Not everyone in this economically depressed region is opposed. Some believe that construction will provide them with better jobs, greater income and a brighter future. On the national level, however, an April 2008 poll showed 53% of Chileans are against the dams.
An April 1, 2008, the New York Times published an editorial titled “Patagonia Without Dams.” It acknowledged Chile’s need for new energy sources, but stated, “Building large-scale hydroelectric dams is an old-world way of obtaining energy. It is too late in the environmental life of this planet to accept such ecologically destructive energy solutions or the model of unfettered growth they are meant to fuel.”
We at Sin Represas, and the people of Aysén, whose old-world existence may one day soon be destroyed by those old-world energy solutions, concur.
The Baker River, one of the last wild rivers in the Patagonia region, is slated for two dams. The Pascua River would get three. These massive walls of concrete would create artificial lakes that would flood some of the region’s best agricultural and ranch lands, along with the world’s rarest forest types.
Patagonia before the dams...
...Patagonia after the dams.
This movie shows the flooding that'll take place once the dams are constructed.