Colombia’s disaster-ridden hydropower project runs second largest river dry

  • Colombia’s largest hydroelectric project, Hidroituango, has created an ecological disaster after emergency measures reduced water flow from a normal dry-season 450 to 500 cubic meters per second (m3/s) to only 35 m3/s, according to climate monitoring authority IDEAM.
  • One prominent environmental activist released a video filmed beside the once powerful river that now more closely resembles a slow-moving creek.
  • In the video, the activist denounced Hidroituango for perpetrating “the greatest environmental crime that has ever happened in Colombia.”
  • Medellin public utility company EPM, who is behind the mega-project that received Inter-American Development Bank financing, is under investigation for corruption-related charges tied to a 2012 consortium process with Brazilian company Camargo Correa.

Colombia’s environmentalists have declared an ecological disaster after the country’s second most important river, the Cauca, was reduced to less than 10 percent of normal flow after the country’s largest hydroelectric dam project Hidroituango took emergency measures earlier this week.

Medellin energy company EPM took emergency measures to close the second of two floodgates on Tuesday to fill the Hidroituango dam reservoir. The dam was supposed to start producing power in 2018, but it has been plagued by disasters after a machine room collapsed in April of last year, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Environmental destruction at the Cauca River. Images via:
Environmental destruction at the Cauca River. Images via:

Isabel Zuleta, an activist for environmental organization Rios Vivos that works with communities alongside the Cauca, released a video filmed beside the once powerful river that now more closely resembles a slow-moving creek, denouncing EPM for what she described as “the greatest environmental crime that has ever happened in Colombia.”

Environmental activists, politicians and journalists have taken to social media to share photos and videos sent from the frontline defenders and local communities around the river. Fishing communities who depend on the river for their main source of income as well as food security have denounced the mega-project for threatening their livelihoods.

“They took away the little that we had, they took away our peace and brought us worries. The majority of the fisherman are without work, we don’t have anything we can do,” fisherman Jairo Taborda said in an interview with local media Caracol television.

The Cauca River shown here running extremely low at approximately 10 percent. Image via:

Environmental licensing authority ANLA announced that it had not been informed about the emergency operation until hours before engineers closed the engine room tunnel that had provisionally discharged water after the original discharge tunnels were blocked last year. ANLA has already opened sanctions against EPM for failing to protect the ecological basin located below the dam.

Jorge Londoño, EPM CEO, said the decision was made to protect communities living downstream from the dam. “If we do not close it, it would mean the loss of water control and this could generate, in the medium term, a greater deterioration of the entire internal infrastructure, with a potential impact on the safety and lives of the communities downstream.”

Zuleta rejected the arguments made by EPM that the closure of the floodgates was made in the interest of the communities downstream who she argued were unlikely to be flooded because of dry season and El Niño conditions had lowered water levels. “The worst part about this is that they’re saying they’re shutting down the water in the name of the communities when in reality they’re only doing it to protect their own interests.”

Video shows young children playing in the now shallow waters of the Cauca River. Images via:

Two members of the activist group Rios Vivos were killed near the Hidroituango dam project within a one-week period in May of last year, bringing the total to five activists who were killed while opposing the dam.

The hydroelectric plant reservoir floods a surface of 11,120 acres. The area was supposed to be cleared of trees and vegetation but experts say the company failed to perform that task which led to build up of organic debris in May 2018, helping to cause the dam’s partial collapse. Local environmental activists claim the dam may displace habitat for jaguars known to roam the area.

The Cauca River starts in the country’s most important watershed known as the Colombian Massif. The river flows 838 miles between two of the country’s three major mountain ranges eventually passing through a massive wetlands area before it joins with the country’s largest river La Magdalena.

EPM said that the floodgates would remain closed until Friday. It remains uncertain whether the operations by the public utility company will be effective in preventing collapse or if the project will ever be completed. The mountainside that supports the dam has been severely eroded by a porous rock interior and serious structural concerns have prevented the project from reaching completion. Experts say the mountain supporting the dam may need to be injected with a concrete filling to prevent an eventual collapse.

Medellin public utility company EPM, which received a $1.1 billion loan package from the Inter-American Development Bank to fund the mega-project, is under investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office for corruption-related charges tied to a 2012 consortium process with Brazilian conglomerate Camargo Correa.

Banner image: Cauca River. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. 

About the reporter: Taran Volckhausen is Colorado-based freelance journalist who regularly reports from Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @tvolckhausen

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