Dams on the Santa Cruz: Argentina’s court to decide soon the river’s fate

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Photo: Michael GaigePhoto: Michael Gaige
By Clara Ribera
The Santa Cruz River is born from the pureness of three glaciers in the Andes and flows unimpeded for 385 kilometers (240 miles) before merging with the Atlantic Ocean. But this magnificent turquoise river is under threat from two large-scale hydroelectric projects. And like so many other environmental conflicts, a small cadre of environmental and citizen organizations have mobilized to defend the river from the Argentinian government, three construction companies (two Argentinian and one Chinese), and the financing body, the Commercial Bank of China.
In September, the Argentine courts ruled in favor of the Argentine government’s request to go forward with the dam project, lifting a second legal precautionary measure that had been postponing work on the project. Construction is now scheduled to commence in November, and there are just two legal proceedings left that could conceivably stop the dams from being built: an appeal submitted by Lof Fem Mapu, the Mapuche-Tehuelche community of Santa Cruz, and a lawsuit filed by Banco de Bosques, an Argentine group that works to protect the nation’s forests, which has requested that the present environmental impact study be declared null and void.
"The situation is at a critical juncture," says a concerned Sofia Nemenmann, activist and founder of the Río Santa Cruz Sin Represas movement (Santa Cruz River Without Dams).
Photo: Francisco BedeschiPhoto: Francisco Bedeschi
Environmental impact
The impact from the project will be substantial. Scientific studies from major universities such as Oxford in the United Kingdom show that big dams on rivers are no renewable energy source: they destroy the biodiversity of the rivers, harm local communities and push countries into debt. Among the other worrisome environmental impacts the Santa Cruz River could suffer if the hydroelectric project moves ahead is the possible extinction of the hooded grebe, one of the most endangered birds in the world according to the Zoological Society of London. In addition, some ranches and their inhabitants, as well as archaeological sites, are at risk.
Moreover, the construction of the Néstor Kirchner and Jorge Cepernic hydroelectric dams on the Santa Cruz River, located in southern Argentinian Patagonia in the Santa Cruz province, could cause a disruption in the Perito Moreno, Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers, as well as compromise some of its ecosystems as the dams will provoke a dangerous counter flow in the river. In May 2016, the Argentinian newspaper Clarín confirmed such fears reporting that there was an existing internal report of the Argentinian Environmental Ministry which “alerted of irreversible damages” to the three glaciers if the dam project moves ahead. “Nowhere else in the world have we ever faced such a problem,” says Nemenmann. “These dams would change the flow of a lake where a glacier is standing. Perito Moreno is unpredictable and we don’t want to even imagine what could happen to it if there is a change in the water that is eroding it every day.”
Photo: Michael GaigePhoto: Michael Gaige
The China connection
Construction of the dams was paused in December 2015 when a new government took power. The cabinet of the current Mauricio Macri government was at first wary of building the dams due to its environmental impacts. But in April 2016, Macri and the Chinese premier Xi Jinping struck a deal; the project would move forward but with some changes that would lessen the environmental impacts, such as reducing the turbines from 11 to eight. Yet, a few less turbines would do little to stop the destruction of the river, and environmentalists point out that while the dams could generate 3,82% of the nation’s power they would increase by some 14% the Argentinian national debt.
Indeed, Argentina’s growing dependence on China is at the root of this conflict. The ties between the countries deepened significantly in 2012 when the two countries began collaborating on several agricultural, transport and energy projects. One of those projects was the reconstruction of the Belgrano Cargos railroad, carrying an investment price tag of US$ 2.1 billion. Two years later, however, Argentina could not pay its creditors for the railroad project thereby forcing the Central Bank of China to make large investments to avoid Argentina having to default on its loans. In addition to increasing the national currency reserves, the Chinese bank’s support was to "promote bilateral exchange” according to the Argentine government.
In April 2016, when Macri met with his Chinese counterpart in Washington, he had no leverage from which to abandon the US$ 4.7 billion Santa Cruz River dams project. The dams project, say observers, was seen by the government as closely linked to the railway project. If the government abandoned the dams project the pols in Buenos Ares feared it could endanger the funding of Belgrano Cargas, as well as put their already fragile, financially dependent relations with China on shaky ground.
Photo: Michael GaigePhoto: Michael Gaige
As well, these are not easy days for the economy in the Santa Cruz province. Unemployment and poverty are an ever-present reality in the region, which prompts some people to support the project. It is true that the project would create thousands of short-term construction jobs: 6,500 according to the government. But once the dams are built, direct employment from the dams would be negligible.
“It is the government’s duty to ensure people have a job, without forcing them to work destroying their own ecosystems,” argues Nemenmann. “The country is angry. The river was never as relevant as it is today. If people start seeing that this is just beneficial for a small group and that all the profits go to China, they will raise more and more pressure on the government.”
In December 2016, environmentalists scored a victory in court. The Argentinian Supreme Court issued a suspension order on the construction of the Kirchner-Cepernic dams until the government submitted a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public hearings procedures were carried out. The court's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2014 by the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers of Patagonia (AAAAP). To date, the public hearings have already been held and the impact assessment has been made public. The EIA was prepared by Emprendimientos Energéticas Binacionales S.A. (EBISA), a company headed by Jorge Hugo Marcolini, who is also vice-secretary of hydroelectric energy for the Argentine Ministry of Energy and Mining.
In its lawsuit, Banco de Bosque state the new study must be “nullified” until a new one "corrects all the mistakes and omissions.” Among other things, they say a proper impact assessment must consider the electric power line that would extend through the Patagonian steppe and include a rigorous evaluation of the effects that the dams construction could have on the glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Photo: Michael GaigePhoto: Michael Gaige
A changing project
Together with her aunt Mónica Cepernic, who organized the trip, Marcela Cepernic and three other women travelled on horseback for 13 days along Santa Cruz River at the beginning of the year. Fighting the fierce Patagonian winds, the five women crossed the Argentinian pampas guided by the river, perhaps some of the last people who might ever see the treasures hidden by a free flowing Santa Cruz River.
Keenly aware of the government’s plans, Marcela Cepernic said the present project is far different from the one her grandfather – Governor Jorge Cepernic, the namesake of one of the proposed dams– had once imagined. She says that when the then Governor Cepernic suggested using the river as a source of energy in the 1970s, hydroelectric dams were considered a renewable source. Today’s plan “completely debases my granddad’s dream: to make Santa Cruz’s province energy self-sufficient by using their water resources.”
She adds that, decades later, huge dams are obsolete and that countries like the United States are starting to dismantle them. Moreover, part of the energy produced in the Kirchner-Cepernic complex would be to supply Buenos Aires. The city is located thousands of miles away requiring long and costly power lines.
“The alliance with China is scary. We have many natural resources, and they have many economic resources to exploit them,” says Nemenmann. Environmental advocates like Nemenmann say they will use every single second to keep fighting so that this irreplaceable river can continue to flow freely from the pure glaciers to the immense Atlantic Ocean.

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