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Stop the Dams in Portugal

Tony Butt  /  Apr 24, 2016  /  9 Min Read  /  Activism

Foz-Tua dam on the river Tua, Portugal. Photo: Platform Save the Tua

One of the most powerful scenes in Damnation is where a way of life going back over 15,000 years is suddenly brought to an end due to the construction of a dam. When the Dalles dam was built on the Columbia River it submerged Celilo Falls and took the salmon with it, forever changing the lives of the local people. Now, six decades later, it has been called an act of cultural genocide.

About the same time as I received my copy of Damnation, I also came across a video by Farol de Ideias called Sabor da Despedida. It describes, in a similar way, how the people of the Sabor Valley in Portugal have lost their way of life due to the building of a dam. Thanks to the Baixo Sabor dam, an entire valley has been inundated, taking with it a centuries-old church, two bridges and several small villages. A free-flowing river containing bordalo, boga and other rare species of fish has been replaced by a dead, stagnant reservoir. It is heart-wrenching to see those humble folk genuinely bewildered at why such a monstrosity should be necessary.Now, there is one difference between Celilo Falls and the Sabor Valley. The Dalles dam was built in 1957, but the Baixo Sabor dam was completed in 2015.

In fact, the Baixo Sabor is part of a program to build several new dams in Portugal over the next few years. It made me wonder why a modern EU state like Portugal should be building dams when, in the U.S., there is a conscious effort to take them down. It seems like Portugal is 60 years behind the times.

I found out that there is actually a large movement in Portugal against the new dams, but practically all the information available was in Portuguese. So I decided to drive down there, speak to some of the people involved in the campaigns and try to help any way I could. I thought it would be a good idea to spread the word outside of Portugal and encourage as many people as possible to support the campaigns against this crazy scheme.

Even though it is too late to stop the Baixo Sabor, there are six more dams in the pipeline. One of these, the Foz-Tua, is already well on its way, but it could still be halted with enough campaigning. If the Foz-Tua is stopped, there is a good chance that the other dams will not go ahead. If in the end we can’t stop it, all efforts will go on trying to stop the next one.

What exactly is the Portuguese dam program?

The Programa Nacional de Barragens de Elevado Potencial Hidroelétrico (National Program for Dams with High Hydroelectric Power) was launched by the Portuguese government in 2007. Of the ten dams originally defined, seven were eventually approved by the government (see interactive map by Rios Livres GEOTA). They are at various different stages of development:

  • The Baixo Sabor dam on the river Sabor. Unfortunately this is now finished. A pristine river valley has been obliterated and the lives of the local population have been changed forever. Evidently, the considerable environmental campaigning that was done was not enough.
  • The Foz-Tua dam on the river Tua. This is under construction, predicted to be finished by 2017, but could still be stopped. At the moment all efforts are focused on trying to stop this dam.
  • The Alto Tamega and Daivões dams on the river Tamega. Work has just started on these two, but they could still be stopped.
  • The Girabolhos-Bogueira on the river Mondego. This one is just starting to go ahead, with expropriations in progress and construction companies beginning to establish themselves on-site.
  • The Gouvães dam on the river Tamega. Work was supposed to begin on this dam in late 2015 but so far nothing has happened.
  • The Fridão dam, also on the river Tamega. The concession for this one should have been signed in September 2014, but it wasn’t. For now, there is no official date planned for the work to begin.


How the population is being deceived

Some of the dams include pumped storage. This is a way of storing the energy produced by wind generators. Wind-generated electricity comes when there is wind, but not necessarily when the population demands it. Pumped storage gets around this problem by using the excess wind energy to pump water upstream into the reservoir when demand is low; then letting the water run back through the turbines to generate hydroelectric energy when demand is high.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that the electric companies are building this system because it is environmentally friendly. They are exploiting the fact that it allows them to speculate on the electricity. Just like any other commodity, electricity varies in price according to supply and demand. So when supply exceeds demand they buy the electricity from the windmill companies at rock-bottom prices. Then, when demand exceeds supply they sell it to the consumers at grossly inflated prices.

Also, the consumers themselves haven’t been told, but they will actually be paying for the construction of the dams, estimated to be around 16 thousand million euros. The money will come from a special eight-percent tax on the electric bill for at least the next ten years, making Portuguese electricity the most expensive in the world.

Another thing people haven’t been told is that the alternatives would be vastly cheaper. For example, installing energy-efficiency measures in homes and factories would be ten times cheaper, or re-fitting old dams with new turbines would be five times cheaper.

Even if the new dams really were a good way of producing economically viable energy for the population, the environmental costs would still far outweigh the benefits. The irreversible destruction of the ecosystem; the inundation of entire villages, bridges, railways and valuable archaeological sites; the devastating effect on local agriculture; and the exacerbation of coastal erosion along the Portuguese coast just don’t compensate for the fact that hydroelectric energy doesn’t emit carbon dioxide.


How the dams are destroying the environment

There are many ways in which dams degrade the environment. In Portugal, the most devastating effects will be on local flora and fauna, local agriculture and on the coastline downstream of the dam.

For example, certain species of fish—typically salmon but many other species as well—swim upstream to lay their eggs. If the river is blocked they cannot do this, so they die. In addition, the Portuguese dams will seriously affect eagles and other bird species, plus other animals such as otters, moles and wolves. Many local plant species will be affected by the reservoirs, and thousands of oak and other indigenous trees are being cut down to make way for the dams.

Dams and reservoirs cause the devastation and inundation of agricultural land, and can lead to changes in the local climate, which disturbs sensitive crops such as wine and olive oil. The Foz-Tua dam will seriously affect the Douro Valley, the oldest wine-growing area in the world and a UNESCO Word Heritage site.

And one vitally important thing, often overlooked, is the fact that dams block the supply of sediment to the coastline. In Portugal, the amount of sediment reaching the coast is about eight times less than it was 60 years ago, before dams were built on the Douro, Tagus and Guadiana Rivers. The new dams will only exacerbate this erosion.

Photo courtesy of Esporão

The beautiful Alto Douro wine growing region, which will be seriously affected by the Foz-Tua dam. Photo courtesy of Esporão

Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

The Foz-Tua dam will destroy an iconic century-old railway line which could have otherwise been a major tourist attraction. Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

The Foz-Tua valley in 2007 before the dam construction… Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

…and in 2015 showing the dam in construction and the railway line that will be destroyed. Photo: Anibal Gonçalves

Photo: Platform Save the Tua

Looking out from behind the Foz-Tua dam at the Alto Douro Wine Region, the oldest wine-growing area in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Platform Save the Tua

That last point deserves a bit more attention. The coastline of Portugal has a huge problem with coastal erosion, the shoreline retreating at average rates of around seven metres per year. This can be attributed directly to the reduction in sediment supply due to the damming of the rivers. If there is no natural replacement for sediment washed away by storms, the coast will never recover. As a result, there will be a systematic eating away of the land by the sea, which will be further exacerbated as oceanic storms and coastal flooding increase as a consequence of global warming. In some areas, such as the Costa da Caparica, just south of Lisbon, several hundred metres of beach have disappeared in the last 50 years.

After the damage to coastal properties that occurred during the extreme winter of 2013-2014, politicians promised to build more sea walls and coastal defences. In other words, they want to build more concrete structures on the coast to offset the effects of the concrete structures they are building in the rivers. Does that make sense to you?

Photo: Tony Butt

The Costa da Caparica: 50 years ago this beach was up to 400 metres wider. Photo: Tony Butt

The obstruction of sediment supply is not only important for people who have their homes and businesses on the coast, it is also very important for surfing. Many world-class surf spots rely on sand or stones that are washed down rivers to produce rivermouth sandbars or cobblestone pointbreaks. Typically, these spots go through a yearly cycle, where the sediment builds up during periods of small surf and/or increased riverflow, and then gets washed away or shifted around during large storms.

Importantly, the overall sediment budget usually remains stable if averaged over the whole year. However, if something puts the system out of balance—a massive reduction in sediment supply, for example—the spot might become progressively worse with each storm, never getting a chance to recover.

Also, coastal erosion means that big-wave spots can become difficult or too dangerous to access. At one or two spots along the coast, the sediment has completely disappeared since the big storms of 2013-2014, and shows no sign of returning. A sandy beach has now been replaced by whitewater crashing straight into vertical cliffs.

Photo: Pedro Bicudo

Tony at a spot south of Lisbon: At the moment access is off a sandy beach, but the next storm might erode away that sand forever, making access difficult or impossible. Photo: Pedro Bicudo

What can we do?

Even though the electricity companies have done a good job at convincing the public and the EU that the dam project should continue, it doesn’t mean that it can’t still be stopped.

At the moment, activists are focused on the Foz-Tua dam. The dam is being built just metres away from the Alto Douro Wine Region, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, in theory, UNESCO ought to step in and halt the dam.

To this end, Portuguese environmental groups, together with canoeing and rafting clubs and wine producers, have got together and are currently trying to urge as many people as possible to sign a letter pressuring UNESCO to take action. Crucially, if you sign the letter as well, it could just tip the balance and bring an end to the National Dam Program.

Here is a short video I made during my visit to Portugal:

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