By: Monti Aquirre, Latin America Program Director
A convergence of forces this month around Colombia’s largest hydroelectric dam have demonstrated the extreme threats posed to the environment and human life when rivers are mismanaged in an absence of accountability and governance.
The Ituango hydroelectric dam on the Cauca River, now at an estimated cost of $5 billion USD, was designed to generate 2400 megawatts of electricity. It’s the flagship construction project of EPM, a utility and energy company owned by the city of Medellín. Local and indigenous communities in the region have long opposed the project, which has disrupted agriculture and fishing since the outset of construction in 2009.
Following a trend of rising violence against environmental defenders across Latin America, on May 2, one of the local opponents to the dam was assassinated. Hugo Albeiro George Perez was a member of Movimiento Ríos Vivos in Colombia and one of the leaders of the opposition to Ituango and associated mining projects in the region.
In response to the assassination, Ríos Vivos made a list of five demands, including a rigorous investigation of this hideous crime, bringing those responsible to justice, and implementation of urgent actions to protect other threatened environmental and human rights defenders.
In the following days, two more local activists were shot dead by unknown assailants. All had been campaigning for compensation for communities affected by the project.
Meanwhile, poor ecological management practices on the part of EPM caused major issues for the dam itself. Three landslides occurred between April 28th and May 7th that blocked the flow of water through an upstream diversion tunnel that was intended to keep the reservoir from filling to unsafe levels. With the tunnel blocked, and the lake started filling much more quickly than expected.
On May 10, the EPM attempted to drain the reservoir through the powerhouse, causing damage to the power generating infrastructure. On May 12, the landslide blockage naturally released and the tunnel was cleared, releasing a rush of water that caused extensive flooding downstream, and triggered evacuations. A harrowing video shows construction site workers running from floods exploding out of the breakage.
As of May 22, at least 25,000 people have been evacuated due to flooding. The floods have razed a village, two bridges, a school, and a clinic. Many evacuees spent the weekend in tent shelters without adequate living conditions after being transported to surrounding areas.
Director of the energy company EPM Jorge Londoño told Colombian media that it is “difficult to answer if the Hidroituango (dam) will be saved.” If the damages to the dam cannot be repaired in time, and if the reservoir continues filling at the current rate, the dam could burst entirely, and ensuing flooding would cause an unprecedented amount of damage. Over 12 municipalities and 100,000 people downstream would be affected.
While EPM has blamed “unpredictable geological conditions” for the disaster, local activists who have been monitoring the site say that the company had left enormous amounts of plant material uncollected, triggering the landslides. The company had been deforesting the surrounding rainforest to clear the site of the future reservoir.
The project has received funding from IDB Invest, the private-sector branch of the Inter-American Development Bank. Rating company Fitch alerted investors last week that the problems at EPM’s billion-dollar project could affect its financial stability for years. Fitch’s assessment describes a common plight facing mega-dam finance: Delays in completing the construction of Ituango will likely increase the pressure on the capital structure of EPM, and logistical and environmental aspects have increased the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of significant cost overruns and associated liabilities.
While the dam is nearly bursting and EPM’s financial stability is collapsing, local residents are being displaced every hour, according to Isabel Cristina Zuleta of Ríos Vivos.
“Communities are losing their way of life,” she said. “There’s no humanitarian assistance here, it’s total abandonment – there’s no shelters, no food, no anything,” Zuleta told the Guardian.
International Rivers is collaborating with partner organizations in Colombia to permanently protect rivers by law, to ensure that water governance values natural river ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. To provide immediate assistance to Ríos Vivos and community activists on the ground, visit Ríos Vivos Colombia.
Photo: The dam of the Hidroituango Hydroelctric Project, on the Cauca river, near Ituango municipality in Colombia| Photo by: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images