Connect to share and comment

Belo Monte dam: Brazil's energy gamble

In a region where water is growing scarce, Brazil is banking its energy future on a dam.

Brazil Amazon, Belo Monte
A deforested area along the border of the Xingu River, in the region where the Belo Monte dam is due to be built, Feb. 19, 2005. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The epic battle over whether to build the world’s third-largest dam is often billed as a fight between those who love the land and those who love development.

But a brief scientific report released today suggests something more basic may be wrong with the project known as Belo Monte, set to be built in the eastern Amazon. It pins Brazil’s energy future on an expensive hydropower installation in a region where water may be increasingly scarce.

The paper, published in the journal Science, makes no mention of the dam. Instead, it documents how for the second time in just five years, the Amazon basin has seen a once-in-a-century drought, arguing the shift matches predictions for how climate change will affect the region.

“This new research adds to a body of evidence suggesting that severe droughts will become more frequent,” said Simon Lewis, a forest ecologist at the University of Leeds, and a lead author on the paper. “It’s worrying because it fits with projections from some of the most sophisticated [climate] models — and those results were published before these two droughts had occurred.”

And some scientists fear Belo Monte is moving forward without taking these potentially game-changing climate trends into account. While much of the high-profile opposition has focused on the dam’s environmental impact — “Avatar” director James Cameron famously called Belo Monte an ecological disaster — less visible critics are asking whether the investment will even deliver the energy it promises.

“There is a danger that we may be building some extremely expensive white elephants,” said Foster Brown, environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre.

Brown and other scientists say extreme weather has been hitting the Amazon more often. The last five years have seen records both for rains and droughts. Both extremes can affect energy production, Brown said. Rain surges can increase how fast sediment builds behind hydroelectric dams, he said, while droughts can cause power outages.

Creating a system that can deal with these extremes would likely increase the cost of the electricity the dam produces, and could be enough to make the project a bad investment. “What people haven’t been asking,” Brown said, “is whether these projects are actually viable from a technical perspective.”

The pressure to bring more energy online is huge. Brazil aims to lift millions out of poverty, and it desperately needs better infrastructure to feed a growing economy. Officials with the state-run energy company Eletrobras, which oversees hydroelectric development, say big hydro projects are the greenest way to achieve that on a large scale, and Belo Monte is an essential part of the push.