SANTO DOMINGO, Puntarenas – Pedro Aguilar is almost blind but says he sees
clearly enough to know that a proposed dam on the SavegreRiver will be good for the country.
His humble wooden home would likely be buried beneath the 138-meter-high dam and the vast 467-hectare reservoir behind it.
No matter to the still spry 81-year old Tico, who has spent half his life farming this isolated Central Pacific slope valley.
“Costa Rica is a developing nation, and it needs electricity to get ahead,” Aguilar said.
The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) hopes the project, due to be complete by 2021, will help stave off future blackouts and a growing dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation. They accounted for 5% of generation this year, up from 1% in 2004.
Not everyone is as convinced as ICE and Aguilar that hydroelectricity is the answer.
A few kilometers downstream, father and son Francisco and Walter Grajal, both born and raised in the shadow of the valley’s primary forests, monkeys and macaws have more questions than answers.
Will the river run dry below the dam? What about the fish and their favorite swimming holes? Will tourists keep coming? Both men work for Rafiki Lodge, a local, “eco-friendly” outdoor adventure firm whose buildings blend with the jungle around it.
Ticos and tourists alike, they say, come here to raft, fish, hike and enjoy the freeflowing river, which rushes seaward from an elevation of almost 3,491 meters, traversing almost a dozen ecosystems and 20% of the country’s biodiversity.
They worry a dam could change their way of life and open the doors to the unsightly, largely uncontrolled development the rest of the country has seen.
“We know what we have here, and we don’t want to see it change,” said the younger Grajal.
A Case for Conservation
The debate strikes at the heart of Costa Rica’s – and the world’s – increasingly complex energy crisis.
Each year, rapidly increasing development, spearheaded by a burgeoning tourism and second home industry, strains the country’s power grids.
Demand in Costa Rica increases an average of 5.5% a year. By 2021, officials expect the country’s power needs will double to 3,200 megawatts (MW).
Currently, 70% of the country’s 1,600 MW of power comes from dams, and upwards of 90% from renewable resources.
To keep its record clean and meet demand, ICE says it must build more largescale hydroelectric dams – a source of energy, they say, that is renewable and sustainable – and cost efficient.
“Costa Rica has historically had the highest percentage of electrical coverage, the greatest diversity of renewable energy sources and the lowest rates in Central America,” said Roberto Jiménez, an engineer with ICE’s hydropower division. “In fact, there are few other countries in the world that can boast these accomplishments.”
The push to build more dams, re-initiated last week with meetings called by ICE in towns along the SavegreValley, exposed a rift among environmentalists, he said.
On the one hand, they clamor for more renewable energy sources, which ward off global warming and climate change.
On the other, they decry the destruction of native ecosystems and river valleys.
“You can’t have everything. Hydropower is an effective compromise,” said Jiménez.
But as pristine rivers grow ever rarer in today’s world, many believe sacrificing even one for energy is unacceptable.
In the U.S., said Elizabeth Beall, a renewable energy expert for the Washington, D.C.- based Natural Resource Defense Council, dams have fallen out of favor. (See story on Page 3.)
“It doesn’t make sense to dam a river, with all its socio-economic and environmental sacrifices, until you’ve exhausted all other options,” she said.
Savegre Dam would generate approximately
200 MW, according to ICE.
Beall believes simple fixes, like swapping to energy-efficient light bulbs, could do the same – and that by taking advantage of its alternate energy sources, the country could avoid new dams altogether.
ICE’s Jiménez isn’t so sure. He is unimpressed by the U.S. energy model, which the International Panel on Climate Change determined pollutes more than any other in the world, save China.
“It’s a double standard.Yes, they have beautiful free-flowing rivers (in the United States), but then they are burning fossil fuels and belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
Jiménez said the institute’s plan calls for the use of biomass and windpower – but believes their potential is limited.
“It’s an important addition, but it can’t meet our increasing short-term demands.”
In Jiménez’s 7th floor office in the towering ICE La Sabana building, there is a printed sign by the light switch that encourages employees to “flip the switch and save energy.”
But ICE studies identify hotels and the tourist infrastructure as the country’s primary source of energy demand – and those least willing to increase efficiency.
“The hotels that use the most electricity are often the most profitable, and efficiency simply doesn’t interest them,” he said.
A Rare Opportunity
From a vantage point atop a rolling farm field in Rio Blanco, beside the town’s schoolhouse, the SavegreValley cinches tight between two sharp ridges, the river’s turquoise waters running the narrow gap between them.
Children splash and play with inner tubes. A blue morpho butterfly rides the damp breeze.
“That’s where the dam would go,” said Grajal Jr., who attended the meeting held by ICE last week in town.
Undisturbed river valleys like this one, he said, are increasingly rare.
“It’s been raining all day and this river still runs clear. There aren’t many places like it left in Costa Rica.”
Constant Boshoff, owner of Rafiki Lodge, whose 22 local employees tend to a largely foreign clientele which comes to raft and hike, agreed.
“This dam will be a drop in the bucket in terms of energy production. But it will ruin this valley. And for what?” he asked.
ICE’s Jiménez acknowledged the socioeconomic sacrifices may be made – but said the country’s energy needs can’t wait.
The problem is that much of Costa Rica’s land is locked away – in indigenous reserves, in national parks, in refuges, and other protected areas. Jiménez said that leaves just 31% of national territory open to energy exploitation, in a country the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia.
“Nothing is set in stone, but this project is one of our priorities,” he said. For now, the dam is still years from completion – and both social and environmental concerns will be considered.
Other ICE dam projects, including one in the BorucaRiver drainage, in the southern Pacific zone, and Pacuare, on the Caribbean slope, have met with citizen resistance (TT May 26, 2006).
Aguilar, who has lived in the valley since 1964, said he has faith in Costa Rica’s Electricity Institute.
He recalled when then-President José Figueres founded the long-standing staterun monopoly. He watched in awe as light spread across the countryside, flickering like stars in the night sky.
“When I moved here in 1963, if Costa Rica had 1 million people, that would have been a lot. Now there are 4 million. Times have changed, and we need to change.”
Aguilar’s property – and his home, a wooden structure with cement floors and no electricity – would be sacrificed, but ICE has promised him a new house, which he and his wife look forward to. New roads, electricity and telephone service would follow.
It’s progress, Aguilar said.
“They helped to make this country what it is today. If they say we need this, I trust them.”_
He Said… ICE Said…
On Water Levels in the River:
Constant Boshoff, owner, Rafiki Safari Lodge: “There won’t be any water left in the river below the dam.”
ICE: “We will maintain a minimum flow, but a little bit of water in the river is a lot of potential electricity lost, particularly in the summer, when we need it most. It’s a balance, and we’re studying it. Hydropower inevitably runs into conflicts with rafters. They both have the same needs.”
ICE: “We are looking out for the greater good of the country. Locally, though, it will create more jobs and improve their quality of life. Where it doesn’t, we will compensate the people.”
Walter Grajal, SavegreValley resident: “You can’t compensate for the life we have here with money. Our quality of life is already good – and most people have jobs.”
Alternate Renewable Energy Sources:
Elizabeth Beall, renewable energy expert, Natural Resources Defense Council: “Costa Rica can become carbon neutral by 2021 by using cheap renewable resources that are currently being wasted, like biomass and wind, without building expensive large hydroelectric projects.”
ICE: “Alternative sources of energy will help, but not solve the problem. We need the electricity now.”
Risk of Building a Dam in an Earthquake Zone:
Boschoff: “If there’s even a 1% change that this dam could break and kill everyone in the valley below it, they shouldn’t be building it.”
ICE: “If there’s one thing ICE does right, it’s assure that the strictest building codes are applied to our structures.”
Intended Use of Power from the Savegre Dam:
Francisco Grajal, SavegreValley resident: “We were told that if there is surplus power, it could be sold to other countries. Is it worth losing this valley just to sell power to other countries?’’
ICE: “At the rate we’re growing, we’ll be lucky to supply our own country’s energy needs, never mind having enough surplus to export on a regular basis.’’