in Colombia, the dam of discord

This must be the last stage of a project started in November 2010 and which is already four years behind schedule. The last tests before the start of the Hidroituango dam, 200 kilometers north of Medellin (North-West), will be carried out on Wednesday, December 14. The 3,500 inhabitants of the four neighboring municipalities, including that of Ituango, from which the dam takes its name, will have to evacuate the premises during the operation.

Colombia’s largest dam, Hidroituango will help produce nearly 20% of the country’s electricity demand. Jorge Carrillo, general manager of Public Enterprises of Medellin (EPM), the company in charge of the work, did not hide his ” pride “ when the plant was connected to the national energy distribution system on November 30. However, the final ignition of the first two turbines of the colossus, whose final bill is estimated at around 3.5 billion euros, fails to reconcile the builder and the opponents of the megaproject.

“The Monster Upstream”

Delays and additional costs are not the only difficulties caused by “the monster upstream”, as Milena Florez, president of the Rios Vivos association and farmer from Briceño, one of the neighboring villages, calls her. In May 2018, engineers and residents believed that the structure was going to collapse. A landslide had blocked one of the diversion tunnels of the mighty Rio Cauca, the second largest river in the country. The water had then overflowed from the retention basin before damaging the spillway.

“The engineers made the decision to evacuate the water through the engine room and everything was destroyed”, relates Oswaldo Ordoñez, a geologist from the National University of Colombia, who is involved in monitoring the dam. A few days later, the tunnel opened under the pressure of the water, causing floods and landslides that devastated the neighboring municipalities. EPM had placed the blame on “unpredictable geological conditions”.

A theory that Oswaldo Ordoñez rejects: “This accident was the consequence of human decisions. The project had fallen behind schedule, and the choice was made to speed up construction to avoid fines, at the risk of weakening the structure. »

“A patient in intensive care”

Four years later, the geologist still considers the dam as “a patient in intensive care”even if the ignition of two turbines does not present a high risk, because “the volume of water required is minimal”. Significant efforts have made it possible to reinforce the robustness of the work, and Jorge Carrillo affirms that “Hidroituango no longer endangers communities”.

However, on November 18, Javier Pava, president of the National Risk and Disaster Management Unit, indicated that “the project will not be (has) never steady”. Doubts remain about the solidity of the rock mass on which the dam is leaned, and the experts do not know “how it will react to the vibrations generated by the start-up”, he added.

Distrust of local communities

For their part, the neighboring populations are afraid of reliving the disaster scenario of 2018. “We fear floods, landslides, worries Milena Florez. And even if the tests on Wednesday go well, nothing guarantees the solidity of the jump-off in the long term. »

The construction of the dam also profoundly changed the economic and social fabric of the territory. “Fishermen and artisanal gold miners have lost their activity. Hidroituango is a deadly project,” abounds the activist, who recently received two death threats for opposing the dam.

The trust between EPM and the local communities also cracked, along with the structure. Many houses have not been rebuilt, as has the health centre. “Residents do not arrive in time for the doctor because the bridges destroyed in 2018 have never been rebuilt”, illustrates Milena Florez.

This mistrust even led some residents to refuse the evacuation order of December 14, for fear of never being able to return home. The latest tests should in any case make it possible to determine the final commissioning date of the plant. Without ending the many controversies.


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