Energy Needs Have Chile Planning To Dam Rivers

Chile's economy is growing and with it is a bigger demand for energy. Some of the nation's rivers are being dammed with mega-hydroelectric projects that have many up in arms about environmental consequences.

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And our next story takes us to South America and the wild rivers of Patagonia. Chile has a strong economy, and it's got a growing demand for energy. This week, the government approved a mega-project to damn some of those rivers. This would generate more electricity, which could be used by Chile's enormous copper mines. For years, though, environmentalists and local residents have campaigned against the project, and news of its approval set off protests across the country. The very first damn would go on the Baker River in rural Patagonia.

Reporter Annie Murphy was there, and has this report.

ANNIE MURPHY: Beneath a snow-capped peak, this stream flows through Marisol Pizarro's small farm, trickling past her back stoop, a yard full of raspberry thickets and peonies, a chicken coop...

(Soundbite of chickens clucking)

MURPHY: ...and by the tiny wooden house where Pizarro was born, which she's made into a campground. All of it will all be flooded.

Ms. MARISOL PIZARRO: (Through translator) The dam is not going to happen. They can't kick me out of here.

MURPHY: In sight of Pizarro's door, the creek empties into the river in question: the Baker, a muscular pulse of glacial, turquoise-blue water, and Chile's most voluminous river. Forty-nine-year-old Pizarro has lived beside the Baker since she was born. She says life used to be simple here.

Ms. PIZARRO: (Through translator) We don't have electricity, TV or telephone. We just dedicate our time to working the land.

MURPHY: Her family has one solar panel that feeds a single light bulb in the kitchen. That's the extent of their energy consumption. But Chile's economy is growing by 6 percent a year, and energy use in the rest of the country has exploded.

Daniel Fernandez is CEO of Hidroaysen, the Italian-controlled company that wants to build the dams. He says Chile needs to double its energy resources by 2020,and triple them by 2030.

Mr. DANIEL FERNANDEZ (CEO, Hidroaysen): (Through translator) If you look at Chile and countries all over the world, the demand for electricity's in line with economic growth. Better put: when a country grows, the demand for energy grows at the same rate.

MURPHY: Fernandez says much of the energy generated from the dams will go to small businesses and home use. But environmentalist Juan Pablo Orrego says the country's voracious appetite for energy is due to the growth of mining, mostly copper, which is used in high-tech gadgets and cables.

Mr. JUAN PABLO ORREGO (Environmentalist): Mining is responsible for something like 37 percent of consumption of energy in Chile. It's the main consumer of electricity. And, you know it right now, we are going into a re-boom, amazing re-boom of mining in Chile.

MURPHY: Like many, Orrego is also worried dams could crush the area's tourism industry. Eighty-six-year-old Max Doering comes here every year to fly-fish with his daughter. He's having breakfast before heading out on the river, and has a hard time imagining transmission towers or artificial lakes.

Mr. MAX DOERING: I think it's probably the most beautiful river in the whole world. It's unbelievably beautiful, and if it changes, I probably won't come back anymore, you know, because I liked it just the way it is.

MURPHY: Some scientists also say dams would alter a valuable ecosystem. The Baker empties into a system of fjords and canals that's estimated to absorb as much carbon as Chile emits as a country. Giovanni Daneri is an oceanographer and the director of the Center for Research on Ecosystems of Patagonia.

Mr. GIOVANNI DANERI (Oceanographer, Director of Center for Research on Ecosystems of Patagonia): (Through translator) What a dam does is it acts like a trap for sediment and nutrients. And the fundamental role of a river in an aquatic system is to move nutrients. The turbidity of the river is going to change, and we don't know how this is going to impact the ecosystem of the fjords.

MURPHY: But some say meeting increasing energy needs is worth building dams. Construction worker Carlos Hernandez is concerned about the landscape and ecology of this place, but he believes dams are inevitable and hopes it'll mean work for locals like him.

Mr. CARLOS HERNANDEZ (Construction Worker): (Through translator) I think that the project is going to happen, because the country needs energy. The raw material is there. It's a little scatterbrained to say that it's not going to happen.

MURPHY: For those opposed to the dams, like Marisol Pizarro, whose electricity needs are met with a single solar panel and whose farm would be flooded, the price of energy is too high.

Ms. PIZARRO: (Through translator) The sacrifice my mother made to work this land, to teach us to be stewards of it, will have been in vain if the dams make it here.

MURPHY: For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy, in Chile.

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