Recently, environmental activists and local residents gathered near the small Chilean town of Cochrane to protest a plan to build a series of hydroelectrical dams. Cochrane is part of Chilean Patagonia, and it would be transformed beyond recognition if the project goes ahead.
But the change in Cochrane would be nothing compared with the change in Patagonia.
The dams — two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua — would irretrievably damage one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth. Building the dams would also mean building a thousand-mile power-line corridor northward toward the Chilean capital, Santiago — the longest clear-cut on the planet and a scar across some of Chile’s most alluring landscape. Most of the electricity generated by the project would go not to residential use but to mining and industry.
In a sense, the proposed dams are a relic of the Pinochet government, which privatized water rights in Chile. The Chilean subsidiary of a Spanish company, Endesa, now owns the rights and is pressing the project. Chile’s democratically elected government is allowing it to move forward. The government has postponed the release of an environmental assessment until June. It needs to reconsider the project entirely.
Chile desperately needs new energy sources. The country is experiencing a severe energy crisis because of drought, a sharp reduction in natural gas imports from Argentina and the global escalation in oil prices. Some power plants, once fueled by natural gas, are now burning diesel fuel, an economically drastic alternative.
Destroying these rivers and the life that depends on them is no solution. Too often, the energy problem in Chile is framed as a choice between building dams or turning to nuclear energy. Solving this crisis responsibly will take a willingness also to explore other renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal power.
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.
The Chilean government would do well to reconsider these shortsighted plans, as would the international owners of the rights to the water in these rivers.