Structural Weakness Found in Xingu River Dam, Risking Ecosystems Below

On Friday, the Guardian reported that it had received “documents and expert testimony” regarding the Pimental dam at Belo Monte, a 14-kilometer-wide dam meant to power the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. Documents suggest that planning flaws in creating the dam have created a structural weakness revealed by record low water levels in the Xingu River. The weakness could cause a collapse due to the tropical storm strength waves produced in the reservoir when the water is low.

This is not an unfamiliar story to activists and residents of Brazil, who have seen dams like this one spring up one after the other over the years, many of them shoddily constructed and poorly thought out. With each new dam comes a new region of the Amazon rainforest flooded and a new river left dry and wasting away as the local people and wildlife are affected by the changes in the ecosystem.

Megadams Taking Over Brazil

Under Brazil’s recent government, the presence of large scale projects has increased, with megadams, mines, and other development projects encroaching on the Amazon rainforest. With these projects comes deforestation for logs, roads, and space for the projects themselves. City bounds expand into the rainforest as well, as the draw of these major projects brings tens and hundreds of thousands of temporary residents to the sites of the project. All this brings about destruction on a level that has not been seen in years, since the Brazilian government reduced support for projects like these.

The Jirau Dam on the Madeira River.
The Jirau Dam on the Madeira River in Brazil’s Amazon basin, April 27, 2012. Brazil is leading a rush among South American nations to build hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, but workers demanding better pay and benefits are disrupting the projects. (Noah Friedman-Rudovsky/The New York Times)

Altamira, the site of the controversial Pimental dam at Belo Monte, is no exception to this phenomenon. The area has recently experienced some of the worst and quickest deforestation in years as the construction of the dam went on. The city’s population increased from 100,000 to 150,000, and hundreds of new houses and businesses cropped up almost overnight. While this may seem like a good thing on the surface, the rapid growth could not last. Upon near completion of the project and the decline of work, the city was abandoned by nearly a third of its residents, leaving it a hollow shell of its former self.

Fishermen who once lived on the river were forced into the city to take jobs as rock breakers, further inflating the population and decreasing the presence of traditional and natural markets. Fish markets have been replaced by fast and frozen food that’s now supplying not just the city but the indigenous peoples who can no longer provide for themselves. These broken people are what’s left behind after union workers have taken their cut and moved on to the next project, several of which have been announced under the most recent Brazilian government.

Abandoned supermarkets, suburbs, and even a Burger King are the products of an influx of construction workers and corporate employees traveling to Altamira to work on the project. Even brothels have sprung up among respectable establishments to service the desires of workers and displaced peoples who have migrated to Altamira as the dam has progressed.

The project is scheduled to be fully completed in 2020, but with the bulk of the work done, Altamira is desolate. Left in the wake of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant’s multi-year building project is a city with devastation surrounding it. The area has been heavily deforested from Altamira to Belo Monte, and the reservoir now covers over 400 square kilometers of the once protected Amazon rainforest. This is a familiar story to the residents of Brazil, who over the last twenty years have watched this process happen over and over again.

Belo dam project on Xingu River
Belo dam project on Xingu River

Brazil gets as much as 80% of its electrical power from hydroelectric dams, despite inside and outside sources such as environmental agencies protesting the impact on the country’s rivers and riverine communities and ecosystems. Each time a dam is built, thousands of members of indigenous communities are displaced, and hundreds of acres of rainforest are submerged for reservoirs. All of this under the guise of “sustainable” energy, which might not be so sustainable after all.

The Xingu River Dam at Belo Monte

The dam is part of the biggest hydroelectric project in the Amazon, and has experienced troubles since the beginning. Even before the release of documents showing the flaw, federal prosecutors planned to call upon the government to stop production of the dam and hydroelectric plant to protect the communities and ecosystems which have been deprived of a critical amount of water, as well as provide emergency aid to these same communities.

belo dam satellite view
belo dam satellite view

Work on the dam began in 2011, when indigenous peoples local to the area that the dam would flood lost their fight against the engineering project, the largest in Brazil’s history and the one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world. Despite their protests, work moved forward, and the effects on the ecosystems below the dam was immediately apparent. The disruption caused by the work reduced some fishermen’s catches by as much as 95% in just a few months, and put the tracaja turtle, which lives and breeds in tributaries of the Xingu river, at risk.

478 square kilometers of rainforest are now submerged by the reservoir, supposedly a small price to pay for the power needed to support nearby Altamira and other cities. This is admittedly much less than would be covered by a traditional dam, as the Belo Monte dam is designed to be as low impact as possible by using a canal to divert some of the water to another area in a tributary. Still, over 20,000 people have had to be relocated due to the flooding, and precious ecosystems have been flooded and lost.

In fact, critics claim that this and further planned dam projects are not even needed, and that alternatives such as wind energy should be considered. Proponents of the dam cited rationing and power outages in the area as the driver behind building the dam in this area, but the destruction and degradation caused by the dam’s construction bring its justification into question.

Indigenous Protests

The indigenous peoples local to the Xingu river have fought the creation of this dam for decades, protesting in force in an attempt to stop the destruction of their homelands and the ecosystems that surround them. Unfortunately, Norte Energia won the rights to build the dam several years ago, and started production immediately. The communities living in the area that is now the dam’s reservoir were forced to evacuate, while those living below the dam have had their lives all but destroyed.

belo damn Xingu River protests
Brazilian indigenous, during an indigenous march against the hydroelectric of Belo Monte in the surroundings of RioCentro convention center, where the UN Conference on Sustainable Development is being , on June 20, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/LatinContent/Getty Images)

From 2011 to 2013, Norte Energia attempted to placate the locals with gifts, as much as 30,000 reais (over $7,000) per village per month. This only served to further destabilize these societies, as a sudden shift from subsistence living to fast food and new cars sparked equal parts lethargy and greed among the citizens. Villages split so that each would get more money, and traditional hierarchies and routines disintegrated. Many villages begged simply for schools and clinics to be built to benefit their children, but Norte Energia did not follow through on promises to do so that they had made at the beginning.

Those who are still willing to protest find their lives dominated by cyclical meetings – with the company, with the government, with NGO activists, and even with journalists. They have little time to provide for themselves in the limited way that the new norm allows. Farming and fishing have decreased greatly, not just because of a lack of resources but because of a lack of time. They’ve become dependent on supermarkets and fast food and have lost their old ways of life.

Flaws in the Xingu River Dam

This design flaw as well as the dam itself pose serious threats to the well-being of the ecosystems which exist below the reservoir and further down the river. If a collapse were to occur, it would flood and potentially devastate already struggling communities with a massive wave of water and debris from the dam’s structure.

The water levels in the dam recently fell to less than 100 meters high, critically low levels that prompted the CEO of Norte Energia, the company in charge of the dam, to request water from the connected intermediate reservoir to rectify the situation. The low levels have revealed areas of the dam not properly protected by rock, which were never meant to be exposed to the heavy waves that can be caused by strong winds in the reservoir.

The structural weakness lies in the Pimental dam itself, which is separate from the housing for the hydroelectric turbines which give the dam its project. The 40 billion reais ($9.6 billion) project is meant to harness the flow of the Xingu river in order to provide power for nearby cities. However, the facility will average only 40% of its total capacity, as the flow of water must be carefully regulated between two reservoirs to minimize flooding of indigenous lands and important ecosystems.

The design flaw suggests that engineers failed to account for lowering water levels, as climate change will cause a 30% reduction in water flow by 2050, even independent of the production of dams like this one.

Although the levels of the river have been even lower in the past, it has caused similar devastation to the area through declining fish populations and reduction of the river.

Below the Reservoir

Downstream, the impact is drastic. In October, the amount of water dropped 250 cubic meters a second below the recommended 1,000 cubic meters a second, meaning that the ecosystems living below the dam are deprived of their most precious resource. Parts of the once raging river are now unnavigable by boat, and locals have to drag their canoes through certain parts of the water to continue their journeys between fishing spots.

Hypancistrus zebra, one of the species found only in the Volta Grande.

Local fish like the acari are found strewn about the banks, left above water as the levels drop. Dried and gutted by vultures, these sorry sights are all too common in the present situation. As the water levels drop drastically, fish can no longer reach their usual feeding or breeding grounds, leaving populations to decline sharply in the wake of the building of the dam.

The pacu fish is another victim of the lowering water levels; they feed off the fruit of the sarao tree, which grows in abundance by the edge of the river. Or rather, where the edge of the river used to be – water levels have depleted so much that the fruit no longer reaches the river, and the pacu’s most valuable source of food is now gone in many areas. This has resulted in drastically declining sizes and numbers of fish due to the lack of food.

The filhote, a staple food fish of the locals and one of the most magnificent fish in the Xingu river, used to be found in sizes as large as 100 kilograms. However, the lowering water levels and decreasing prey sources have reduced those vital catches in size drastically, now down to around 20 kilograms. This impacts both the quality of the wildlife and the quality of the locals’ lives.

The now-regulated flow of water in the river also impacts the animals that are dependent on flood waters to breed. Many species of fish breed only in the flood water ponds of the rainy season – which will no longer have much if any impact on the levels of water in the Xingu river below the dam. The dam will regulate the flow of water to levels below some of the worst drought seasons in history, like the recent 2016 drought, which caused such a drastic decline in the population of fish that some locals called it the end of the world.

Subverting the System

Brazil’s constitution requires an Environment Impact Assessment, or EIA, to be done on major projects like these before they can move forward. The EIA will determine the impact of the project on the delicate and highly important ecosystems in the surrounding area, especially endangered or highly localized species. This is meant to prevent projects that will do undue harm to the ecosystem and preserve the precious biodiversity of the river and forest.

However, in this case the EIA was funded by Eletrobras/Eletronorte, a subsidiary of Norte Energia and the company responsible for the Belo Monte dam project. It was contracted out to a company that operates 15 other hydroelectric plants in the Amazon area. Many of the protesters pointed out the bias inherent in the sources and called for the EIA to be conducted by a third party, but Norte Energia was allowed to proceed.

In the wake of the release of the EIA, many claimed that Norte Energia failed to mention some of the most destructive parts of the project and their impact on the ecosystem. Looking at the destruction today, they also failed to mention or anticipate many of the adverse effects on the water flow both above and below the dam.

Clean Energy?

The hydroelectric dam was billed as a sustainable source of energy for Brazil’s growing population, but the reality seems to be quite different. The deforestation around the area as well as the flooding of biodiverse ecosystems in the reservoir was just the beginning, and even the depletion of ecosystems below the dam doesn’t cover all of it.

Hydroelectric dams actually emit billions of tons of greenhouse gases across the world due to rotting vegetation at the bottom of the reservoir. Submerged plants rot at the bottom of the reservoir, building up methane in the water that then gets pulled through the turbines and released into the air. The dam at Belo Monte is no different, and may in fact be producing more methane due to the abundance of plant life that is now covered in water.

The dam pulls water from the bottom of the river, where natural methane deposits as well as decomposing plants are common. It then is forced through the turbines, which disturb the methane buildup and force it into air bubbles that surface on the other side of the dam. This highly saturated water not only releases methane into the air, which remains in our atmosphere for up to 10 years, but is also potentially toxic to the species living downstream, who are not used to such high concentrations of methane so near the surface.

The Destruction Continues

The area around the Belo Monte dam has suffered some of the quickest and most severe deforestation of recent years, part of a growing trend under the current government. Recent forest fires have destroyed acres more of the precious land, and some scientists like Monica de Bolle believe it could happen as soon as 2021.

With the building of dams and the deforestation of areas for “development,” the rainforest is quickly losing its ability to sustain itself. The production of rain is dependent on the presence of trees and the flowing of rivers, both victims of the recent development programs. Other dams like the Belo Monte dam are in planning or production stages, and thousands of acres of trees are being felled to support these projects and others.

amazon deforestation
The forecast suggests the rainforest will degrade into a drier savannah, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Photograph: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty

This deprives hundreds, if not thousands, of animal species of their natural habitat. Already endangered species are further at risk due to developments like the Belo Monte dam, and once-abundant species are approaching endangered levels due to the destruction of their habitats. This spells disaster not only for the ecosystems located in the Amazon, but potentially for the whole world.

If 20-25% of the total rainforest is felled, it will no longer be able to produce the rain necessary to sustain its delicate ecosystems and will degrade into a savannah over time. Not only will this destroy thousands of species of animals dependent on the rainy conditions of the forest, it will release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which will exacerbate the already advancing warming effects of climate change and will disrupt the weather across not just Brazil but all of South America.

Spreading the Message

Fortunately, people are finally talking about the impact this dam is having not only on the wildlife but on the indigenous peoples of the area. Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor at Milken Institute School of Public Health, has spent three years developing a film about the devastation experienced by the people living on the Xingu river, from those who are displaced to those who are effected by the deforestation and lack of water.

film Sequestrada
Sequestrada: When Belo Monte dam displaces an indigenous girl, she must rely on a white man to save her people – although he is the key to their destruction.

McCormick’s film, called Sequestrada, or Kidnapped, follows the story of a young girl belonging to the Arara tribe who is kidnapped by sex traffickers. The girl must escape and find her way back home amid the backdrop of the Belo Monte project, showcasing the destruction caused by the project and its impact on the indigenous peoples. McCormick’s choice to tell a story rather than produce a documentary intends to grab viewers’ attention and get to their hearts rather than their minds.

The girl’s story is a way to see the true impact of the dam and hydroelectric plant projects on the indigenous people of the region. The influx of indigenous residents into cities like Altamira has resulted in a rise in sex trafficking and kidnapping of children in the area, especially indigenous children. Sequestradatells the likely story of one such victim, revealing the stark consequences the dam has brought about in more ways than one.

Displacement and environmental degradation alike have separated cultures like that of the Arara from their traditions and their ways of life, causing upheaval among populations who suddenly have nowhere to go and nothing to hold onto. The sudden introduction of modern day features into the lives of people who have lived without for hundreds of years has thrown them into complete chaos and left many with more questions than answers.

If you’re interested in watching the film, it will be released on digital platforms such as iTunes and Google Play on December 17. It features Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Kamodjara Xipaia.

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