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Brazil's giant dam programme is a climate disaster

Brazil's giant dam programme is a climate disaster

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Brazil's newly elected Dilma Roussef is committed to completing the disastrous Belo Monte dam, writes Helle Abelvik-Lawson. Worse, she looks certain to press ahead with the industrialisation of the Amazon, with 61 hydroprojects in the pipeline. And new scientific findings about the massive climate impacts of tropical forest dams are not about to stop her.

Large hydroelectric power projects may be contributing to global warming - rather than helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - due to grossly underestimated methane emissions from dam-created reservoirs flooding forests, according recent research.

This could have serious ramifications for countries such as Brazil - which is in the process of building 12 dams on tributaries of the Amazon and has another 218 proposed.

The controversial Belo Monte dam, under construction, is the best-known of these - and the newly re-elected president Dilma Rousseff is determined to see it through. She even posed at the construction site with workers during the election campaign.

As her predecessor Lula Inacio de Silva declared, the project would go ahead "na lei ou na marra" - "by fair means or foul".

Rousseff, who won the electoral run off for Brazil's presidency on 26 October - looks certain to continue championing the development of dams and other infrastructure projects.

During her first term She implemented more infrastructure projects than at any time in Brazil's history. And her party, the PT, have promoted a model of developmentalism that has been less focused on environmental sustainability than large taxpayer-funded industrial projects - of which Belo Monte is the biggest.

The problem is that until recently the emissions linked to dam projects - which largely come from methane - haven't been properly measured.

Methane emissiones from tropical 'drowned forests' higher than expected

The first study to quantify methane released from dam reservoirs, published in Biogeosciences in August, concluded the amount of methane emitted from tropical reservoirs during their first years of operation "has most certainly been underestimated until now".

The researchers monitored emissions from the NamTheun 2 reservoir in Laos -the largest in southeast Asia - finding a type of methane emission called 'ebullition' was not fully accounted for.

Ebullition happens when bacteria break down organic matter in areas of flooded vegetation, which gives rise to large methane bubbles that rise up from the bottom and burst at the water surface.

The study showed that ebullition accounted for 60% to 80% of total methane emissions from the reservoir in the first few years following filling.

Filling reservoirs in tropical areas of Asia, South America and Africa can create 'drowned forests', which could be emitting over 10% of man-made methane around the world, say the researchers from French National Centre for Scientific Research - though in areas of low vegetation such as Iceland, hydro is a net benefit to climate change.

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, 84 times more warming than CO2 over 20 years, according to the IPCC. That means if Brazil goes ahead with its programme of building large hydro dams, this could create a massive impact on the climate.

Brazil's hydropower dams are 'methane factories'

The research won't come as a complete surprise to the Brazilian government.

A 2007 study undertaken by their National Institute for Space Research looked at ways to extract the methane from the process of generating hydropower.

There has also been research into the 250MW Balbina dam, which has been branded a 'methane factory'. The research found that downstream (ie non-reservoir) methane emissions account for 3% of all methane released from the central Amazon floodplain, according to a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.

A study by Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Amazonian Research found that proportionate to output the hydro dam emits far more greenhouse gases than the most inefficient coal plant.

And yet Brazil continues apace with its programme of dam-building in the tropics - 61 are planned to be built in the next five years - despite significant opposition.

The Belo Monte - a mega operation that will be the third-largest dam when it is fully completed - continues although an appeals court judge that the dam was unconstitutional in a 2012 ruling because of lack of consultation with the public - though this was overturned. Its construction has displaced 20,000 indigenous villagers.

The dam could now also be an imminent threat to the climate. The reservoir has now been filled and the water is at 97 metres above sea level, flooding 250 square miles of the Amazon forest - the world's largest and arguably most precious carbon sink.

One concern is that because of the seasonal variation in water levels in the Amazon region, Belo Monte could be the most inefficient dam ever built hitting 10% of its theoretical maxiumum output of 11,233MW during the dry season and an average of only 39% of its nominal capacity throughout the year.

At a total cost running to over $14.4 billion, majority funded by the Brazilian Development Bank BNDES through loans to the public-private partnership known as the NESA (North Energy plc) Consortium, Belo Monte is looking economically risky.

No viable political opposition

Political support for the dam project remains - with little apparent interest in stopping emissions.

Marina Silva, former environment minister and Green candidate, dropped out the presidential election. In spite of Silva's work in bringing environmentalism - and an understanding of the ecological dangers of large reservoirs in the Amazon - into the heart of Brazilian politics, she lacks the clout to force any policy rethink.

Without the political will in Brazil to fund and implement mitigation strategies immediately, it seems increasingly likely that the continued industrialisation of the Amazon for hydroelectric dam building may become an unexpectedly devastating contributor to climate change.

Helle Abelvik-Lawson is community manager for GreenPeace UK's Energydesk.

This article was originally published by Greenpeace UK. This version includes some additional reporting by The Ecologist.

Date : 29/10/2014