Patagonia to be dammed

London: Plans for five hydrodams in the wilderness of Patagonia have been approved by environmental regulators appointed by Chile President Sebastian Piñera’s administration. The controversial plans are now expected to be officially signed off by the government council of ministers.

A condor flies over snowy rocks

The dams will stopper the Baker and Pascua rivers in Chilean Patagonia, and the 3MW/yr hydropower generated in this sparsely inhabited region will be sent thousands of kilometres north to Santiago and the energy-hungry mining operations of the capital region.

Aysén, Patagonia, at sunrise

The transmission line, carried on 70-metre-high tower and which would require one of the world’s biggest forestry clearcuts (120-metres-wide and more than 2000-km-long), is the most controversial part of the plans, and has not yet been approved. But, once the dams are approved, it is more likely the government would approve the the transmission line.

Patagonia is a region of glaciers and lakes

I visited Patagonia this time last year, trekked its beautiful mountains and valleys, and talked to locals both for and against the dams, while researching an article for Science magazine. What struck me, was that nobody liked the idea of the dams – at best, they were described as a necessary evil. Those who were ‘in favour’ of the project, talked about the ‘development’  and energy benefits outweighing the environmental concerns. But nobody I spoke to believed that there were no environmental problems with the dams and its transmission.

I was there in winter

In Patagonia, as in Laos (which is planning 11 dams along the Mekong river), choices about how energy and development needs will be met over the coming decades are being made now in the same way that they have been made over the past two centuries. Unsustainable, environmentally damaging choices that will radically alter pristine landscapes and livelihoods are being made right now, even though we know how damaging they could be. In the 21st century, with all our benefit of hindsight, it is unforgivable to deliberately make the same mistakes.

Clear clean rivers

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