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Iceland locked in national dam dispute

A proposal by Iceland's national power company would dam 11 rivers and tributaries in the country  

Iceland's national power company wants to dam 11 rivers and tributaries to create a 57-kilometer reservoir that portends disaster for wildlife and habitat.

Environmentalists envision the usual consequences of dams: flooding in the valleys around the Kárahnákar plain, the exodus of reindeer and geese, and the burial of waterfalls and vegetation blanketing the accompanying plain.

The controversial project has become the focus for a burgeoning new movement of non-governmental organizations in Iceland. And these NGOs already have made an impression.

"Since September, the chances to protect the Icelandic highlands have again significantly increased," said Peter Prokosch, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature's Arctic program. "The government for the first time published a proposal for a national park, an idea WWF has been promoting for several years."

Across the Kárahnákar plain, where glacial rivers surge over waterfalls on to echoing canyons, reindeer graze at the foot of Mount Snaefell and thousands of pink-footed geese settle to molt in mud-lined hollows. This is the heart of the Icelandic highlands, just north of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.

The entire region is a wilderness, 150 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide. It is home to the whooper swan, golden plover and ptarmigan, to rare flowers, herbs and moss, and to an abundant hot springs.

Few tourists visit the area. There are no houses and barely a farm. Huts in the camp set up by the Icelandic national power company are the only sign of human habitation.

The reservoir would serve a giant hydroelectric power station. With turbines producing 700 megawatts of electricity, the facility would be the biggest hydro plant in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe.

None of the electricity would go to homes, however. A giant aluminium smelter, planned on the coast, is due to absorb the entire output of the station.

After two years of unrelenting pressure from NGOs, the government of Iceland has accepted that the power company is legally required to perform an environmental impact assessment of the project, which, subject to a period of public consultation, will determine whether or not the plants can be built.

The highlands of Iceland  

Last year the NGOs forced the power company and smelter builders to abandon a similar, combined scheme in a neighboring delta by exposing the inadequacy of the EIAs they carried out. The battle is now on to stop the current project.

The aluminium smelter and power plant projects are part of a larger plan to industrialize northeastern Iceland with energy-intensive industries, first dreamed up in the 1950s and pursued by successive governments without review. There are already two large smelters on the east of the island, providing substantial employment around the capital Reykjavik.

Industrialization of eastern Iceland, says the government, will slow down a population exodus to Reykjavik, thereby providing employment opportunities, particularly for young people, close to their villages.

The smelter, to be built by Norwegian multinational Norsk Hydro and a consortium of Icelandic banks, is expected to give a good return to its investors if forecast increasing global demand for aluminium exports materializes.

The power company already provides 90 percent of the electricity in Iceland and is looking for new ways of expanding its business. It is offering hydro-powered electricity at a very cheap rate: two U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour compared to four cents in the United States and seven cents in Germany.

The power company's information manager, Thorsteinn Hilmarsson, admitted that he could not see how Icelanders would fill the 500 or so jobs at the smelter. Unemployment is only 2 percent in Iceland and the smelter would be likely to rely upon immigrant labor, he said.

Sources at the national power company say the station will only be built if the smelter goes ahead.

Norsk Hydro and the Icelandic power company are conducting the EIAs which they plan to present to the Ministry of Environment before the end of March 2001. The ministry will make a decision on whether to allow the projects to go ahead in June 2001 after a three-month public consultation period.

"This effectively means that the data collection for the EIAs will be conducted within the short summer season, since the companies involved only started them in Spring 2000," said Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association.

Environment minister Siv Fridleifsdottir promised that the decision to go ahead would be made independently of the plans of the state-owned power company.

"It also seems very important to me that the general public be assured access to the evaluation process from the beginning," said Fridleifsdottir. "Environment is a synonym for people, animals, plants, climate, health, work and material value."

Tony Snape is a free-lance reporter based in Brussels, Belgium. A version of this report was prepared for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Kárahnákar plain
World Wide Fund for Nature's Arctic program
government of Iceland
  • Ministry of Environment
Norsk Hydro
Iceland Embassy

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