Commission looks to Tucurui

9 July 1999



The World Commission on Dams has announced both a case study and a regional consultation to be held in Latin America


Latin America will be the venue for the World Commission on Dams’ next public consultation on the experience of water and energy development in Latin America. The regional consultation will be held on 12-13 August 1999.

The aim of this is to assist the Commission in fulfiling its mandate by achieving the following goals:

•Inviting a broad range of interested parties to participate in and inform the WCD’s work.

•Facilitating the public exchange of ideas and views among various constituencies in the region.

•Providing the Com-missioners with an opportunity to develop a shared knowledge base.

The format of the consultation will be one of panels composed of three to four presen-tations each. The panels will for run approx-imately one and a half hours, with each presenter being allocated between 15-20 minutes. This will leave about 30 minutes for a questions and answers session at the end of every panel.

The distribution of panels and presentations at the consultation will ensure adequate representation from the countries in the Latin American region, as well as from the various interested groups involved in the debate over large dams and sustainable water and energy management. The WCD will ensure that there are presentations from government, private sector and civil society perspectives. Issues likely to be addressed include:

•Participation and conflict resolution.

•Social impacts of resettlement and affected people.

•Economics of large dams or a cost/benefit analysis of large dams.

•Energy and large dams.

•Food security and large dams.

•Environmental impacts.

The Commission recently announced that it has chosen, as one of its case studies, Brazil’s Tucurui dam, located 300km south of the coastal city of Belem, along with related aspects of the Amazon/Tocantins river basin.

This is one of up to ten case studies of dams in major river basins around the world to be undertaken by the Commission in preparation of its June 2000 final report. The report will provide a framework for future decision making on dams. It should be noted that the Commission is not judicial in nature and will not adjudicate on disputes over dams. The WCD case studies are intended to underpin the final report by illustrating the impacts of dams on people, the environment and economies.

‘No other natural environment has captured the world’s imagination this century as has the Amazon,’ said WCD chair Professor Kader Asmal, who is also South Africa’s Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. ‘The Amazon is the largest river basin in the world and most of Latin America’s assumed hydro potential lies there. The dam experience in the tropical forest has much to teach us for future decision making on these projects and their alternatives.’ The 6771km long Amazon is the source of 20% of the freshwater discharged into oceans. For much of this century, Brazil’s leaders and its urban poor looked to the Amazon for economic salvation, through exploitation of its hydro power for industrial growth, its timber for export and its land for cattle-raising.

As with many dams the world over, Tucurui was part of a national dream. Ninety per cent of Brazil’s energy comes from hydro power without which, it has been argued, the national debt would have been worsened by the cost of importing fossil fuels. Constructed to fuel the Grande Carajas programme of mining and other industrial projects, it was the first large dam built in a tropical rainforest and its 2875km2 reservoir is the largest manmade lake ever built in such a zone. Its 4200MW capacity fuels aluminum plants which add value to domestically-mined bauxite. The recent completion of Brazil’s North-South electricity transmission grid means Tucurui’s power can be sold nationally rather than just regionally and gives further impetus to the exploitation of Amazonia’s hydro potential.

In the last several decades, however, the cost of such exploitation in the delicate Ama-zonian environment has become a matter of vociferous debate ‘Tucurui also offers the WCD specific lessons in emerging institutional responses to the social and economic conse-quences of large dams,’ said WCD Secretary-General Achim Steiner. ‘Additionally, the Tucurui study will demonstrate the long road travelled in conducting environmental assessments of dams, and how Brazil’s strategy with respect to assessing dams and their altern-atives has evolved over time.’ Another instructive aspect of the Tucurui experience is the assessment of the slow decomposition of the forest flooded to create the reservoir. Hydroelectric power production and the resulting biomass decomposition yields methane, a greenhouse gas. Just how much methane is released is a matter of great conjecture, so the Commission will examine this issue very closely.

WCD senior advisors Elizabeth Monosowski and Sanjeev Khagram are the WCD focal points for the Tucurui case study. They can be reached at the WCD in Cape Town, South Africa on tel: +27 21426 4000; email [email protected] dams.org or [email protected]
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