An environmental review commission in the Aysén region of southern Chile has made a potentially disastrous decision, voting to approve the construction of five hydroelectric dams, two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua. The damage these dams would do to the environment is tremendous, and their construction — in a largely unspoiled natural haven — would open the way for further development, including more dams.
The Baker and Pascua Rivers flow into the wild fiords that thread their way along the southern Chilean coast. The dams would partially flood a national park as well as portions of a landscape that Chile had been hoping to have named a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The vote follows an environmental review that looked only at the immediate consequences of construction and not the long-term effects on the ecology of these watersheds or the downstream risks of damming short, violent, glacial rivers that are subject to abrupt outburst floods from the lakes above them. To deliver the power they would generate — some 2.75 gigawatts — Chile would have to build a 1,400-mile corridor of power lines to the north, creating the longest clear-cut on the planet.
There is no disputing Chile’s energy needs or the fact that it pays much more for electricity than any of its neighbors. But major studies have made it clear that Chile has extraordinary renewable energy sources, including solar, geothermal and wind power that could be developed with far less impact on the environment.
This is an early skirmish in a lengthy, hard-fought battle. A separate environmental review must be completed and approved for the transmission corridor. We hope it takes a more comprehensive look at the damage this project would cause. Perhaps then the Chilean government, which supports the dam project, will come to understand what many Chileans already know: that sacrificing Patagonia for power would be an irreparable mistake.