Mega-hydro projects under discussion

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Rio Santa Cruz and the Andes. Photo: Michael GaigeRio Santa Cruz and the Andes. Photo: Michael Gaige
 
By Peter Hartmann 
 
Not only is the Rio Cuervo hydro-electric project in Aysen not viable, but its owners Glencore and Energía Austral are showing signs of the same. The national press recently reported that Energía Austral is reducing personnel by 70 percent. It was also reported that the company met with the energy minister to inform him of this step, though they maintain that they will continue with the project. Sometimes it appears that it is the energy minister who is more interested in this project, as he insists on keeping it in his regional energy export presentations. Thats the way it is in a neo-liberal model: ministers are practically ambassadors for the businesses and transnational corporations in their purview. 
 
And speaking of mega dam projects, the Argentine government has announced a dam on the Rio Santa Cruz with involvement of Chinese capital and companies. The truth is that this project smells pretty fishy. Nothing is known about environmental impact evaluations, and under threat are gems like Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the most important tourist destinations in Patagonia, as well as other glaciers and national parks that have been declared World Natural Heritage sites by UNESCO. The most unbelievable thing is that part of the government’s argument for the dam project is that the energy is needed for the air conditioners used during the torrid summers of Buenos Aires, more than 2000 km away. If the sun is so hot, the logical thing would be to use that energy!
 
The other strange Argentine megaproject under discussion is a plant to divert water from Lago Buenos Aires called the “Rio Deseado Multipurpose Aquaduct.” According to the Santa Cruz press, it has been being proposed since 2004 by the opposition, was previously rejected as unviable, but now reappears under the present government and with deep flaws and just in time for election season. The plan will cost 5 billion dollars and they are seeking Chinese or Russian financing. Yet, Argentina and Chile have an environmental agreement with a hydrological resources protocol in which both countries must agree to undertake a general use plan before using any water from this shared basin. (A plan which, in the past, some in the Chilean foreign ministry failed to recognize and remember when they were on the HidroAysen bandwagon.)
 
This reminds me of an earlier aqueduct in the region, the diversion of the Rio Fenix ordered by Perito Moreno. It is a little-known story which is quite relevant to this case. Llwyd ap Iwan, an explorer and Welsh colonist from the “Phoenix Patagonian Mining Co.,” in 1894 proposed diverting a river originating in the Cordillera Castillo, making a detour to the west, then returning from where Perito Moreno is today back down to the lake. In other words, it was part of the Baker watershed basin. In January and March of 1897, they did the surveying and engineering work for a canal to divert this flow to the Rio Deseado valley. Ap Iwan’s plan was to irrigate the valley in order to colonize it. However, it was the era of border litigation between Argentina, whom argued for a border at the highest mountain summits, and Chile, whom argued for a border at the continental divide.
 
After finding out about Ap Iwan’s proposal when visiting the location in 1896, the Argentine expert Francisco Moreno sent his employee Clemente Onelli to build the canal in 1898. The diversion of the river provoked protest from the Chilean foreign ministry, creating great tension and even leading to a mobilization of troops. For his part, Moreno’s explanation was that the canal was intended not to alter the watershed’s divide, but to demonstrate how little value the continental divide had as a border line. The point is that the famous diversion of the Rio Fenix (so called by Ap Iwan) in the end accomplished a purely geopolitical purpose. A British judge ended up granting part of Lago Buenos Aires to Argentina. Now, the aqueduct issue reappears this time with other motivations, including irrigation (colonizing?) in order to supply mining and petroleum ($$) projects and coastal cities (votes).
 
Peter Hartmann is coordinator of the Aysen Reserve of Life Coalition. He has also been regional director of the Codeff (National Committee for Defense of Flora and Fauna) office in Aysen since 1989. 
 
Translation by Taylor Ffitch