The Brazilian government is to construct a massive hydroelectric dam complex in the state of Para, to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a more consistent energy supply. The Xingu River, a tributary to the Amazon River and home to several Amazonian indigenous groups, will be the site of the dam, known as the Belo Monte Dam. The dam will have a generating capacity of 11,233 Mega Watts, or nearly 40 percent of the United States’ total energy consumption in 2010.
The Belo Monte dam's impressive 1,233 Mega Watt capacity appears to be exactly that – impressive – but realistic production and efficiency are much more important factors to consider. In the area of the world where the dam is planned, there is typically a three to five month-long dry season. During this dry season the dam will only by able to operate at 10 percent of its capacity. Throughout the rest of the year the dam will operate at an average of 39 percent of its capacity, approximately 15 percent less than the average for other Brazilian hydroelectric dams.
Of the electricity generated, 70 percent will be sold for public consumption, and according to a study performed by the dam’s developer, the company Eltrobras, even during the dry season the dam will provide the entire state of Para with electricity. The other 30 percent will be sold for industrial mining and other similar operations. Additionally, the Brazilian government has planned a $40 billion (US) investment into mining expansion of the Amazon region through 2014.
Up to 80 percent of the Xingu River would be diverted to new canals and reservoirs leading to permanent drought in some areas. The canals and reservoirs would total some 258 square miles, of which 150 square miles is forestland. Two canals, each 1,640 feet wide and 46 miles long, would be created, requiring removal of more soil than that removed during the construction of the Panama Canal.
People and the environment
This $17 billion (US) dam is but one of 60 planned for the Amazon, and is thought to be one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. One section of the river, the Volte Grande, would be altered to the point of threatening extinction of hundreds of species, according to a 2009 report by several experts.
Construction of the dams and infrastructure would create 40,000 temporary jobs and only 2,000 long-term jobs. It is estimated that 100,000 migrants would be forced to move into population centers or into illegal and unsustainable logging and cattle ranching, leading to more deforestation. In population centers, the rapidly expanded population would increase competition for already scarce jobs and stress social services and an already crumbling infrastructure.
The dam would directly displace over 20,000 indigenous people who had previously lived and made their livelihood off of the forest and river.
According to an AmazonWatch.org article, “Considered an ‘obstacle’ to business interests, indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable. Mega-projects typically confront indigenous communities with disease, loss of food and clean water sources, cultural disintegration and human rights abuses.”
The Belo Monte dam was found to be economically not viable by a 2006 economic analysis performed by the Conservation Strategy Fund. In order for the dam to become economically sound, more upstream dams would be required to increase productivity during the dry season. These dams would directly and indirectly affect another 25,000 indigenous people; one of these new dams would flood 2,370 square miles, according to its original design, thus disrupting human communities and ecological processes.
IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources, has had two senior technicians and their president resign in protest, due to the incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and strong political pressure to approve the project. Issues with the EIA include missing water quality, socioeconomic indicators and fish populations data, and poor evaluation criteria. In February 2010 the plan was approved by the IBAMA, pending a six-year trial period of operation.
Often overlooked is the impact of stagnant waters rich in organic materials on greenhouse gas emissions. Of note, one 1990 study of a Brazilian dam, the Curua-Una Dam, found that it pollutes the equivalent of three and a half times more carbon dioxide than an oil power plant would pollute.
A 2007 World Wide Fund for Nature report stated that Brazil could cut its expected demand for electricity by 40 percent by 2020 through investment in energy efficiency. The electricity saved would be equivalent to 14 Belo Monte hydroelectric dams and would save Brazil $19 billion (US). While appearing complex, the improved energy efficiency would stem from improved energy transmission, replacement of energy-inefficient household products and updating old and failing generators.