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CHILE: Flood Deaths Inquiry Targets Hydropower Firm

by Daniela EstradaInter Press News Service (IPS)
August 3rd, 2006

The Chilean Congress is demanding that the government take measures to regulate the operations of hydroelectric dams, while it prepares to investigate whether or not the Spanish firm Endesa was to blame for the flooding seen several weeks ago in central and southern Chile, which left 25 dead.

"We senators from the eighth region, Bío-Bío, are convinced that Endesa was responsible for the Jul. 11-12 flooding, because this is the fourth or fifth time it has happened," Senator Mariano Ruiz-Esquide of the co-governing Christian Democracy Party (PDC), who was designated to bring the matter to the attention of the government, told IPS.

Legislators from parties across the spectrum asked the centre-left coalition government of President Michelle Bachelet to adopt measures to keep the rivers from flooding and to ease the effects on local populations, in order to avoid a repeat of last month's tragedy, when a heavy storm led to the flooding of a vast area stretching from the fifth region in north-central Chile to the tenth region in the south, claiming 25 lives and leaving at least 25,000 people homeless.

(Chile is divided into 12 regions, ordered from north to south).

According to Ruiz-Esquide, what is needed is "new legislation for the management of the hydroelectric companies built in the foothills of the Andes mountains," which should establish clear guidelines on water levels in the dams and reservoirs, "because the companies tend to let the water fill up to the limit to avoid losing money."

The new legislation should also specify how much advance warning the power companies should give authorities before they open the floodgates of their reservoirs, and exactly how eventual damages and responsibilities will be assessed in case of flooding, legislators said at the end of a special session held Tuesday in the Senate.

The Chamber of Deputies also set up a commission on Tuesday to investigate whether or not irregularities were committed when the floodgates were opened at the Pangue hydropower plant, built by Endesa on the Bío-Bío River, in the Andean foothills in Chile's eighth region.

The Chamber of Deputies commission will also evaluate the damages that the company may have caused to families and farms in that south-central region.

Houses and crops were destroyed, bridges were washed away, and roads were cut off when the Bío-Bío -- one of Chile's longest rivers, which drains 24,000 square kilometres of land -- overflowed its banks in July. During the storm, the river flow increased to 15,000 cubic metres a second, compared to a normal flow of 900 cubic metres.

One couple in the town of Nacimiento, 549 km south of Santiago, who lost their 11-year-old twin daughters as well as their home, crops and animals in the flash flood, holds Endesa and its Pangue and Ralco plants directly responsible.

Although the government acknowledged its share of responsibility in allowing dwellings to be built in high-risk areas in river basins and along hillsides, the criticism has mainly targeted Endesa Chile, the local subsidiary of the Spanish firm, for opening the floodgates of the reservoirs.

The president of the non-governmental Institute of Political Ecology, Manuel Baquedano, was pleased with the measures taken by Congress, but said the legislature should have acted sooner in response to an obvious problem. "The way dams and reservoirs are operated is not regulated in this country," he told IPS.

In the environmentalist's view, the companies must agree before building their hydroelectric plants that they will take responsibility for any future impacts, and will do what is necessary to prevent them, such as building dikes and other barriers to protect people living in the river basins, and creating a well-designed information system on how the flood prevention mechanisms operate.

Baquedano concurred with Ruiz-Esquide that it should be determined who was responsible for last month's flooding, and that criminal charges may be called for, since lives were lost.

In an attempt to explain the passive stance taken by the national authorities, Renato Galán, mayor of Hualqui, a town located 532 km south of Santiago in the eighth region, told IPS that "Endesa is blackmailing the Chilean government, because it knows the country needs energy."

Galán especially criticised the Ministry of Public Works and the General Water Directorate (DGA) for "defending the construction of new hydropower plants" at the expense of "sustainable and more equitable development."

During the Senate session that ended late Tuesday, several lawmakers also lashed out at Minister of Public Works Eduardo Bitrán for "defending Endesa and the Pangue dam and reservoir."

Hualqui, a town of 20,000, is one of the areas that has experienced the worst damages from the construction of the Ralco and Pangue dams, having suffered the effects of the flooding of the rivers for seven years now.

The city government sought a court injunction, which was rejected by the appeals court in the city of Concepción, and brought a lawsuit for environmental damages, which is currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

Galán explained that the municipal government is not seeking indemnification, but wants the company to build dikes to protect the local population. He added, however, that they may take the case to an international court if necessary.

Local residents have also been active. On Jul. 25, people of the towns of Los Ángeles, Santa Bárbara and Hualqui filed three legal challenges against the Pangue dam for opening its floodgates, and against the DGA, which were taken up by the appeals court in Concepción.

In an open letter to the El Mercurio newspaper that same day, Endesa's communications manager Renato Fernández denied that the company was to blame in any way for the floods, stating that "the hydropower plants operated their equipment strictly in line with the procedures established for these kinds of circumstances."

Fernández blamed the tragedy on "an extraordinary and unusual climatic phenomenon" in the region, which received 400 mm of rain in just 48 hours.

Baquedano, however, said the Institute of Political Ecology warned the company before it began to build the dams that it had to be prepared for "major climate changes that would be seen in the country over the following years."

In the sixth region, the Rapel hydroelectric company, also owned by Endesa, opened its floodgates several times during the days and nights that the storm raged, causing serious problems for farmers in the area of Navidad, 168 km south of the capital.

PDC Deputy Juan Carlos Latorre said he had no doubts that Endesa was to blame for the damages, "because the entire flow of the Rapel River originates at the dam."

"There is no other possibility here, other than an inappropriate handling of the floodgates," he said.

Latorre urged Endesa Tuesday to compensate the families who suffered damages.

Criticism over how the floodgates were opened also came from environmental and citizen groups in the 11th region of Aysén, where Endesa, in conjunction with the local firm Colbún, plans to build four hydroelectric plants, which would flood 10,000 hectares of pristine wilderness.





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