Emerging Powers Harnessing Neighbours' Hydroelectricity
By Mario Osava*
RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 13, 2011 (IPS) - Emerging countries like Brazil
and China are building numerous hydroelectric dams at home and abroad
to help drive their economic growth. But while in Latin America the
phenomenon is touted as an integration process, in Asia it has
generated tension over the shared use of rivers.
Brazil, the leader of this strategy in Latin America, has an agreement
to build five hydropower dams in Peru, and is interested in building
two similar plants, which would depend on reaching agreements with
Bolivia: a joint venture between the two countries on the stretch of
the Madeira river that forms part of the border between them, and a
A large part of the energy generated by these projects will be
exported to Brazil, whose government projects an annual 5.9 percent
increase in demand for energy from now to 2019, when the country will
need 167,000 MW, over two-thirds of which will come from
Building dams outside of the country is one way to evade stiff
opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups in the
Brazilian Amazon, where nearly all of the country's as-yet untapped
hydropower potential is found.
Cachuela Esperanza on the Beni river in northern Bolivia, near the
Brazilian border, will have a potential of 990 MW, according to a
project drawn up by Tecsult, a leading Canadian consulting firm. That
is nearly the equivalent of Bolivia's entire demand for energy.
"It will only be profitable if more than 90 percent of the energy
generated is exported," Walter Justiniano, an engineer from the city
of Guayaramerï¿½n, on Bolivia's northern border with Brazil, told IPS.
Distributing the energy within Bolivia would require the installation
of hundreds of kilometres of power lines, since the nearest city is
1,000 kilometres away, he said.
The proposed dam on the Ribeirï¿½o rapids on the Madeira river, the
biggest tributary of the Amazon by volume as well as length, would
have a capacity of 3,000 MW - similar to the Itaipï¿½ dam, one of the
world's largest hydroelectric facilities, built 27 years ago by Brazil
on the border with Paraguay.
Paraguay has never been able to consume more than 10 percent of the
energy produced by Itaipï¿½, although it is entitled to half.
The two projects are still in the feasibility study phase, according
to Alberto Tejada, manager of electricity generation at Bolivia's
state power company Empresa Nacional de Electricidad (ENDE).
The Cachuela Esperanza project depends on the evaluation of "technical
questions and policies of sovereignty, security and environmental
protection," Tejada told IPS. "Negotiations and arrangements for its
financing and construction are not far along," he admitted, although
Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed his interest in pushing the
project forward in January.
The Ribeirï¿½o rapids project, meanwhile, depends on an agreement
between Bolivia and Brazil "as a guarantee of enforcement of the
treaties for the free navigation of international rivers," Tejada said.
A Bolivian team of experts is studying the hydroelectric potential of
three rivers in the basin shared with Brazil, which will serve as a
basis for the negotiations, he added.
The rivers to be dammed, in both Bolivia and Peru, are tributaries of
Brazil's major Amazon rivers, like the Madeira and the Solimï¿½es.
The black hole of Asia
The situation is much more complex in Asia, where the Tibetan plateau
in China is the source of some of the world's largest rivers, which
flow towards India and Southeast Asia.
Growing demand in China is driving up energy consumption much faster
than in Brazil, because of the Asian giant's population of 1.3 billion
and economic growth of around 10 percent a year.
But the recent spate of dam-building by China is worrying others
downriver with dams and water needs of their own. There are
approximately 81 large Chinese hydropower projects on the upper
Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers.
Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam established the Mekong River
Commission (MRC) in 1995, to cooperate on sustainable management of
China's 21 dams on the upper Mekong are causing concern in the four
MRC countries, where a drought in the summer of 2009 reduced the
Mekongï¿½s flow drastically enough to make the MRC suspect China of
hoarding the river's waters, causing scarcity downriver.
But the MRC's weak resistance to Chinese pressure has been harshly
criticised by organisations like the International Rivers Network (IRN).
In addition, Laos announced in March that it would build the Xayaburi
hydroelectric dam with a capacity to generate 1,260 MW, triggering
protests in Vietnam, which fears serious damages to agriculture and
fish farming in the Mekong delta.
But Xayaburi is just the first of 11 hydropower plant projects on the
Mekong river that the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are
considering, nine of them in Laos alone.
India's concerns over Chinese dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (the upper
reaches of India's Brahmaputra river) echo similar worries over dams
being built in Nepal and Bhutan, where India in its turn is leveraging
its weight to access cheap electricity.
The larger countries in the region are thus using their economic clout
to harness the resources of smaller countries.
In Burma, dams being built by China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh
offer these countries an opportunity to access cheap electricity while
not being held responsible for the negative social, economic and
environmental impacts. Strong anti-dam movements in Thailand, for
example, make projects in Burma particularly attractive.
There are 29 hydropower projects in Burma with a total combined
capacity of 19,413 MW currently under construction and another 14,
with a capacity of 13.971 MW, in the planning stages. Ninety percent
of all power to be harnessed is for export.
Chinese firms are the biggest dam builders in the area, one more
example of how "China is emerging as a massive economic investor in
the region," Carl Middleton of IRNï¿½s Mekong campaign told IPS.
Brazil, similar role, smaller scale
Brazil plays a similar role but on a smaller scale in Latin America,
where companies like Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, Camargo Corrï¿½a and
Queiroz Galvï¿½o are involved in the largest dam-building projects.
But Brazil seeks to exercise a more subtle kind of power than China,
whose companies tend to bring in Chinese workers for projects abroad,
which limits the hiring and training of local labour power.
Nearly all of the countries of South America have an energy surplus,
untapped potential and sources like oil, hydroelectricity, natural gas
or coal. But "some states have natural resources, while they lack
capital or technology" to develop them, said Daniel Falcï¿½n, a diplomat
in the Brazilian foreign ministry's division of non-renewable energy
These conditions justify the push for "energy integration," which
besides offering "complementarity," foments "understanding and mutual
familiarity among neighbours," he told IPS.
That is one of the top priority issues taken up by the Union of South
American Nations (UNASUR) since 2007. The regional bloc now has
guidelines and an action plan, and is negotiating an energy treaty.
"There are no initiatives like this anywhere else in the world, not
even in the European Union," Falcï¿½n said.
The Cachuela Esperanza dam will represent additional revenue for the
Bolivian state, more energy for productive activities, and improved
living conditions in the country's northern Amazon jungle region,
while reducing the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity,
leading to a cut in greenhouse gas emissions, Tejada argued.
But it will also require a dam "almost as big as Itaipï¿½," which will
flood rainforest in Bolivia, said Justiniano, the engineer from
Guayaramerï¿½n. He concurs with other critics of the construction of
"Brazilian" hydropower plants in Bolivia and Peru, who consider them
unnecessary and destructive of the countries' rich biodiversity.
*With additional reporting by Franz Chï¿½vez in La Paz and Keya Acharya
in Bangalore. (END)
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