A lot of controversy exists in El Salvador regarding hydroelectric dams, and even more for mining projects. Pictured here is an example of what can go ‘wrong’ with hydroelectric dams, especially in developing countries with little regulation who are financially ‘beholden’ to investors.
Two hydro-power dams near completion or under construction in El Salvador: Cimarrón, which was ‘suspended’ by Mauricio Funes in January, 2010, and El Chaparral, under construction, and also causing controversy. As for Cimarrón being “suspended,” well…suspended is not canceled, and we see that CEL (‘the’ hydro company here) will soon pick the project back up: June 2010 article where CEL announces it will build both dams (?suspended). Citizens are keeping their ears up for any movement. In fact, this summer I got caught in a traffic jam when a group was protesting against both hydro and mining projects, on the “Truncal Norte” highway, which runs from San Salvador to the Chalatenango region. Another day, a group of 200 protested in front of the President’s House in May, just before CEL’s June announcement that it “plans on building” both Chaparral and Cimarrón dams. See article on ElFaro.net: Protest against El Chaparral, Cimarron dams – May 2010.
Note the price tag for just the Cimarron project alone: “one thousand million”. That’s a billion dollars. And foreign investors are happy to loan all of it to El Salvador.
The hydroelectric plants interrupt the environment, but also place thousands of people in peril, which a typical Westerner many ot be aware of. Here in El Salvador, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who use the rivers to wash clothing or dishes, in addition to swimming and fishing. In our neighborhood the water comes to the house, but numerous people just a 7 minute drive up the road in Naranjos and Nances still do not have water piped to their homes. They carry water to their house in jugs from a nearby well. It is hard work and impractical to haul the many jugs of water needed to do laundry, so instead they walk their clothing to the river, and wash. Women (you’ll never see a man here doing this) also bring their dishes to the river to wash, for the same reason. If they build the Cimarrón hydro-plant upstream from us (a 20 minute drive), washing or swimming in the river becomes perilous. The hydro-electric dams release discharges at various times, often unpredictable and unannounced. Anyone who risks going into the river may suddenly be confronted with a giant wall of water coming at them. To build the dam a large stretch of land must be cleared (residents are often forced to move via eminent domain), and it is flooded with the “lake” that sits in front of the damn. Fish that live in the river are disturbed by the change, not to mention the random discharges. Costa Rica is a prime example of a country with extensive hydroelectric dams. When we visited that country in 2008, we would often see an inviting beautiful river with a sign next to it stating “No swimming! Dangerous Discharges released.” The poor in El Salvador at least have the enjoyment of the river to swim in, and fish which helps their food budget, but not after installing a hydro-plant.
Mining of Gold and Silver is another economic endeavor popular to foreign investors here. An article I read in “El Norteño” (the Northerner / newspaper for Chalatenango region) in early 2010 discussed the dangers of allowing mining companies into an area. Mining in Chalatenango would create few jobs because the companies bring in their “own” employees and technical professionals, so only vendors and those that service those mining employees would see economic benefit. Few if any actual jobs would be provided to Salvadorans, the nature side would be disrupted for mining and excavation, perhaps even relocating people, and would see possible contamination of local water sources. Then when all the silver is done mined, off they go and no one here is the better for it. Ads seen on the backs of buses and on billboards in the city state “mining is exploitation” with an illustration of a pair of ghoulish looking hands with claws instead of fingernails. A great resource covering mining in El Salvador is Tim’s El Salvador Blog. Here is a recent article
Hydroelectric power is considered by some to be a ‘greener’ form of electricity. In much of the country, especially the part of Chalatenango where our family is from, the sun shines every day, all day long, even during rainy season where it only rains late pm or night. How about a solar panel field for starters? And how ’bout them mountains for windmills? Volcanoes everywhere, hmmm….geothermal?
A good article that appears balanced by the “Environment, Health and Safety Online” website covers the pro’s and con’s of dams: http://www.ehso.com/ehshome/energydams.htm
The article’s discussion explains in part why we see a “silt release” in the Belize dam pictured above – it must have been built with a release at the bottom where silt develops, which is a good thing, but looking at the picture, it appears something went awry.
EHSO discusses the pitfalls of creating large reservoirs (in front of dams) in tropical climates, where dangers of disease are higher. I will add to their comments that in developing countries, poor planning after the initial budget of a president or dictators “pet dam project” can result in lack of future funds to dredge silt accumulation or perform structural maintenance. The price tag of these dams can be stupendous, where investors in countries far from the dam make money off the interest of a loan that could take tens of decades for the developing country to pay off, if they ever do.
I await and welcome comments.