Contributoria

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Sacrifice the river for renewable energy

Costa Rica is famous for its eco-friendly policy on national parks and renewable energy. But some Costa Ricans believe that the river dams don't fit this image.

In March, the state-run Costa Rican energy company ICE announced it had provided the country for the first 75 days of 2015 solely with renewable energy. Not a single drop of fossil fuel was used. Global media took up the story, contributing to the image of an environmentally friendly and ecological country, among them my feature for Dutch magazine OneWorld.

Costa Rica has been producing an impressive amount of its energy for years already without the use of fossil fuels. The country’s powerful rivers are ideal for hydro-electricity; more or less two-thirds of Costa Rica’s electricity needs can be generated this way. But this form of energy also has its price.

The rafters

“I grew up with professional rafters from all over the world coming to my little town,” says raft instructor Luis Sanchez, who lives in the city of Turrialba. “Our river, the Reventazón, used to be the perfect place to train for the Olympics. There were challenging passageways, the trip to the start of the river was not too far away and the water was perfectly clean. The hotels and restaurants here would always be filled with tourists. Until they dammed the river.”

As a result, according to Sanchez, the high level rafting tourism left the country to find training spots elsewhere in the world. What was left for the city was a declining tourism industry and a river where the fourth and fifth dams are now being built, one of which will be the biggest in Central America. The dams mean the diminishing of the currents available to raft on, while the rotting sediment from behind the dams flushes down the river, which makes it too filthy to swim in.

“When we still rafted the Reventazón, we always joked that you had to drink guaro (a typical Costa Rican liquor) afterwards to clean your system from the bacteria in the water,” says New Zealand-born Jane Tyrrell, owner of rafting company Costa Rica Rios in Turrialba. While her husband and co-workers are busy in the office organising new group tours, sometimes rafting and camping for days on end, she explains over a coffee: “That was in the time when there was only one dam. Already the water was dirty and you would stink like crazy after a day of rafting. We find this very unfair. There is a lot of talk about green energy, with Costa Rica boasting about its accomplishments of the first 75 days this year, but the thing is, hydroelectricity can be green, with certain modern turbines for instance, but building a dam simply is not green. You need a lot of concrete to build it, there is the rotting sediment behind the dam, the river flows out in a national park, and so damming it doesn’t improve natural life there either.”

The people living around the Reventazón had made it very clear; when they were asked in 2005 to vote in a referendum about damming another river, the Pacuare, 97% of the people pressed the ‘no’ button. “At that point, they finally understood what a dam really implies,” says Sanchez.

The scientist

Pollyanna Lind is a geomorphologist from Oregon, working on her dissertation about the Pacuare river in Costa Rica. She is trying, in particular, to find out how a dam influences the movement of bigger sediment through the whole system in a river.

”The biggest problem with a dam like the one in the Reventazón is the way they have to flush the system clean twice a year,” says Lind. “They release the water to get rid of the sediment and rotting organic water behind the dam, which then moves through the riverbed with a powerful force at once, killing and destroying everything on its way. Besides that, a river is a complete system; we can find rocks from up in the mountains sometimes all the way down on the beach. It is simply not clear yet what is the result of a dam blocking movement throughout this system. It would have been good if there had been clear reports about this beforehand, so the people would have known what was the consideration.”

The hotels and restaurants here would always be filled with tourists. Until they dammed the river.

Besides the issue of sediment, Lind mentions the predicted climate change for Costa Rica. It is expected there will be less rain and more storms, which won’t be favourable conditions for hydroelectricity. ICE projects have been damaged by storms before, so the chances of another damaged project would only increase.

The politician

The adversaries of damming argue the biggest need for electricity is by now taken care of, with an average of over 90% of the electricity produced without fossil fuels, so every new dam that is to be built will only be there to produce energy to sell to neighbouring countries – the grid in Central America is sufficiently connected since 2011 to create this possibility.

Costa Rica has a population of roughly 5m, which is one-tenth of the total Central American population. In 2012 it produced 10,076 GWh, which would be a quarter of the total energy production of the region (statistics from ICE). Vice-minister of environment and energy, Ronny Rodriguez, in his office in the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINEA) building, is a soft-spoken man who is clearly proud of the country he represents. He says Costa Rica also exports a lot of knowledge to the other countries by sending experts, often for a small price as a form of development aid. For years already, Costa Rica has been a leader in renewable energy in Central America.

Rodriguez says: “In 1884, the capital San Jose was one of the first cities in the world with a grid. Costa Rica got its first hydro plant in 1948. Firstly, these were investments Costa Rica had to make with its own money. Nowadays, banks are interested to invest, for instance the Bank of Europa and the World Bank.”

Then his eyes start to glimmer. “It is actually quite simple. We don’t want oil anymore. Even if the government wanted to open a coal plant, the streets would be full of protesters. It is even prohibited by law to exploit new oil fields. Though there is a lot of oil in the ground in our Caribbean and our southern region, there will always be a natural park in the way. But still, we have a lot of issues to tackle; for instance, our transportation still mostly runs on fossil fuels. We look towards Switzerland to see how they work with hybrid cars to see if we can implement that in our public transport system.”

The moratorium on oil exploration, initially signed during the Laura Chinchilla administration in 2011, will last at least until 2021. The American oil company Mallon Oil Co., which had initially won a tender for exploration of oil in the south of Costa Rica in 2000, started a court case against the Costa Rican government to be able to exploit these oil fields. They lost in July 2013, so the oil is still in the ground.

The report

In the case of the Reventazón river, the considerations to build the newest dam are clearly outlined in a feasibility study by the Inter-American Development Bank. It mentions the arguments already stated by the rafters and the scientist. All migratory fish in the river would be affected - the bobo mullet, the mountain mullet and the goby - the report states. However, these are all non-endemic fish, so they wouldn’t immediately become extinct. When the rotting water is released, the delicate biological system in the river downstream will be at risk, which includes the habitats of endangered species such as the sawfish and the hawksbill sea turtle. (The turtles have already suffered a lot from poachers who search for turtle eggs, which are a Costa Rican delicacy. This poaching was probably behind the murder of conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval). Not to forget, the livelihoods of rafters such as Luis Sanchez and the tourism industry surrounding them are destroyed by the dam.

When the rotting water is released, the delicate biological system in the river downstream will be at risk, which includes the habitats of endangered species such as the sawfish and the hawksbill sea turtle.

Of course, the pros of building a dam are clear: an alternative to burning more fossil fuels or nuclear energy. But the study mentions the alternatives: solar, geothermal, wind and biomass. However, these mostly all have their own shortcomings. Geothermal energy, for instance, is a good possibility in a country full of volcanoes, but isn’t as easy as it seems. Vice-minister Rodriguez says Costa Rica is talking with Iceland and New Zealand about this form of renewable energy. “We can learn from them how to avoid calcium clogging the pipe lines, which is one of the main problems we encounter.”

According to the report, the decision to further dam the Reventazón (for 314 MW) was also based on the fact that it has already been dammed, whereas some other potential rivers as the Diquis (608 MW), the Savegre (160 MW) and the Pecuare (167 MW) are still pristine. Damming these rivers would stir up a lot of social opposition. (A documentary on protest against damming the Pacuare river can be seen on YouTube. It is a bit one-sided though.)

The electricity company

Marianela Ramírez is chief of process system expansion, directorate planning and development at ICE. She explains how ICE is always researching for new ways to produce renewable energy. “2015 was very favourable for hydrology, but 2014 was, for instance, a particularly dry year. This variation in the sources of renewable energy makes the search for a new generation of renewable energy production economically viable. If we want to keep delivering the same quality and reliability of energy, we have to keep developing.”

At ICE the researchers look for a balanced combination of different sources for renewable energy, to be less affected by variations in output. Water and wind combine very well in Costa Rica. In the dry summer season it’s possible to produce a lot of wind energy, but during the rainy season, it’s better to work with water energy. Solar energy is also being developed, but this brings along other obstacles; in the evenings, when it’s dark in Costa Rica, the least energy is delivered. This intermittent output causes problems with the grid, and might even damage the infrastructure. The advantage of a dam is that the artificial lake behind it works like a big battery. So ICE continues to research further possibilities for hydroelectricity.

“Currently we are working on the analysis of the Naranjo river; one of the elements is the rafting and canoeing activities currently carried out there. The study characterises the different uses of the river (social, productive and biotic). The sediment to the river mouth in the Pacific Ocean is another element of care; it is already an area whose pattern of sediments is affected by the dynamics of the river, but also as a result of the damage caused by other economic activities such as mining.”

The promise

As green energy grows in importance all over the world, the discussion about the impact does too. Costa Rica isn’t the only country encountering issues surrounding dams; the Mekong Delta in Asia is another good example of the impact dams can have on the environment. But we could also look at Iceland, the US, China and many others for examples of the ecological impact of dams.

With roughly 25% of the country as a national park and a head start in the year of 75 days of renewable energy on the grid, Costa Rica does deserve its name as a “green” country. Ramírez ends her mail with the message: “We await the results of the study on the Naranjo river to be able to assess the impact of a dam. ICE has always been responsible in the decisions it makes developing its projects.”

People like Luis Sanchez, Jane Tyrrell and Pollyanna Lind and many others in Costa Rica are fighting to make ICE stick to its word. They don’t believe that former decisions, such as the one to start damming the Reventazón, have always been made in a responsible way.

Says Lind: “I’m afraid they don’t always realise how priceless these rivers are.”

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