The government moved one step closer to approving the continuation of the massive “Néstor Kirchner” and “Jorge Cepernic” hydroelectric dam projects in Patagonia today after the conclusions of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA) reviewing the dams were released in the government’s Official Bulletin.

Initial proposals for the dams were met with fierce criticism from environmental NGOs for their potentially detrimental impacts on the local environment and biodiversity in the remote Southern province of Santa Cruz where they are being built, including the water level of the large lake in the area, Lago Argentino.

However, the government’s suggestion that the EIA would allay these fears was boosted through the conclusions of the report. According to the EIA:

“Among the most relevant issues related to environmental sustainability, the report cites that it is duly accredited(…)that the reservoir of the ‘NÉSTOR KIRCHNER’ dam does not affect the natural levels of Lago Argentino, guaranteeing, in such a way, the non-affectation of the glaciers that feed into it.”

One of the most serious environmental issues concerning the dams has to do with how they will affect the water levels in the lake, which is fed by several of Patagonia’s largest and most impressive glaciers including the Perito Moreno and Upsala glaciers.

Environmental NGOs suggested that the dams would cause a significant increase in water levels in the lake and surrounding area, which could in turn increase the amount of ice lost by the glaciers because—as glacier expert Lucciano Bernacchi told The Bubble earlier this year—the amount of ice lost by glaciers flowing into water increases with the depth of the body of water.

There were also fears that any change in Lago Argentino’s current water levels could alter the Perito Moreno’s stunning mass calving events which happen almost every year and draw thousands of tourists.

The review of the dams was advocated by President Mauricio Macri on assuming the presidency in December 2015, when his administration inherited a collection of incomplete infrastructure projects from the previous Victory Front (FpV) government led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

In December last year, the Supreme Court followed through on this by unilaterally suspending all work on the two dams while the environmental review took place.

Alongside the effects to the nearby glaciers, environmental NGOs also raised concerns about the impact on local flora and fauna in the area as a result of the dams, as environmental journalist and climate change expert Fermín Koop told The Bubble.

“Many NGOs complained because of the laws [protecting] biodiversity that the dams may violate. Many species in the area are going to be threatened by the project if it’s built and, as we know, when you embark on a project on this scale, you have to clear a lot of land in order to make it happen.”

However, the report also offered good news concerning the local ecology, suggesting various key species would not suffer serious adverse effects if the current, renovated plan for the dams submitted by the Macri government be followed:

“The most critical aspect related to the fauna is related to the possible effects to fish migration as a result of structures (to be built) to divert nearby rivers and the plans to fill nearby reservoirs. These structures will be designed according to the requirements of species of special conservation interests, such as native lamprey and steelhead trout,” the report said.

Further, the EIA suggested that any changes to the flow in the local Santa Cruz River, home to a plethora of indigenous species, would be “significantly reduced” under the new proposals, while “studies will be maintained during the different stages of the project to guarantee its sustainability.”

Background

The two massive hydro-electric dam projects were initiated by the former Victory Front (FpV) government led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and bear her trademark of naming new construction projects after her late husband and fellow ex-president Néstor Kirchner (see the Kirchner Cultural Centre et al).

Indeed, both dams are located in remote Patagonia, in the Kirchners’ home province of Santa Cruz.

On unveiling details of the projects back in 2015, Fernández de Kirchner called them “the most important hydroelectric projects in Argentine history.”

The dams are being built by workers of three firms: Electroingenería, Hidrocuyo and China’s Gezhouba Group, and financed by Chinese banks. They were one element of a series of accords signed by Fernández de Kirchner with Chinese President Xi Jinping following her state visit to China in 2015.

While the conclusions of the EIA are a boon for the Macri administration’s plans to continue with the project if its environmental credentials are improved, many NGOs will likely remain skeptical of the dams. As Koop explained:

“NGOs say that if the government is going to invest such massive amounts of money in the project (US$ 4.5 billion) they could just do another project or projects that are much more environmentally friendly,” he said. “If you look around the world, many experts question dams as a source of energy. Even though it’s clean energy that doesn’t lead to any emissions, a lot of people question them as being the best option because of the way they are built and the impacts this can have.”

As for the Néstor Kirchner and Jorge Cepernic dams specifically, the next hurdle in approving their construction will be a public audience dedicated to the topic, scheduled by the government for July 20 in Congress.