The main power plant of the Belo Monte hydropower plant has an output of 11,000 megawatts, to which 233 megawatts from the secondary power plant are added. The complex cost twice the original budget, which was more than $ 10 billion when it was built. There are also difficulties such as the delay in the construction of the transmission line that will carry energy to southeastern Brazil, inefficiencies in generation, and higher than expected social and environmental costs. CREDIT: Marcos Corrêa / PR-Agência BrasilRIO DE JANEIRO, December 28th (IPS) – “We no longer know the Xingú River,” whose waters “determine our way of life, our income, our food and our navigation,” complained Bel Juruna , a young indigenous leader from the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
“The water is no longer at its normal, natural level, it is controlled by the locks,” she said. The huge locks are managed by Norte Energia, a public-private consortium that owns the Belo Monte hydropower plant, whose interest is in harnessing the river flow for profit.
Belo Monte was built between the middle and lower part of the Xingú River in the eastern Amazon and uses a 130-kilometer U-shaped curve in the river, the Volta Grande.
A 20 km long man-made canal diverts most of the river in a short cut connected to the end of the curve at an 87 m long waterfall. The abbreviation kept the Volta Grande – where there are 25 communities including two legally protected indigenous areas – from facing flooding.
The new project replaced the original idea from the 1970s, which would have created a conventional reservoir covering an area of 1,225 square kilometers that would have flooded the entire Volta Grande with two smaller reservoirs totaling 478 square kilometers. The first holds water in front of the curve and diverts it into the canal that forms the reservoir for the main power plant, which produces 11,000 megawatts of electricity.
The second dam, with a facility generating up to 233 megawatts, contains the locks that release water into the Volta Grande, which has almost dried up and has other effects on riverbank population.
The Belo Monte complex with the third largest power plant in the world is expected to generate an average of only 4,571 megawatts of solid energy.
This low level of productivity of only 40 percent of the installed capacity is explained by the fact that it is a river runway system, the flow of which varies by more than 20,000 cubic meters per second in the rainy season – which lasts a few months in the first half of the year – in some of the driest months at less than 1,000 meters per second.
The river’s water, split between its natural course and the canal, was found to be inefficient in maintaining the level of electricity generation intended by Norte Energia and the energy authorities, while also meeting the vital needs of the Volta Grande .
“We no longer know how to navigate the Xingú River, through which the canals are supposed to run, because Belo Monte closes the locks and opens them whenever it wants,” said Bel, a member of the Yudjá indigenous people known as Juruna call. which means “the aborigines of the river”.
Given the size of the site, a group of workers looked like ants when the Belo Monte hydropower plant was built in 2015 as the machines and turbines to generate 11,000 megawatts of electricity were installed. The plant produces only 40 percent of its installed capacity and could further limit its productivity given the deforestation of the approximately 531,000 square kilometer catchment area of the Xingú River. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPSThe Xingú, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon with a length of 1,815 kilometers, is particularly rough in its central part, with many visible and submerged rocks, islands and islets as well as deep and shallow channels. Navigation is dangerous and requires practical knowledge and familiarity, which has been wreaked havoc by the low water level and changes in the natural low and high water cycles.
“We want enough water to flood the ‘igapós’ (black water swamp forests that are seasonally flooded with fresh water), where fish and turtles can breed and eat in winter, in order to fatten and maintain their weight in summer,” said Bel, who took the ethnic group name as her surname, a common custom among the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
Fish and the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), a species of freshwater turtle common in the Amazon, are important sources of protein for the people of the Volta Grande, especially the Juruna, fishermen and people who work on boats.
“But it is life itself that is in danger, not just us indigenous people. It is nature that is deprived of the water cycle – the trees, the fish and other animals,” said Bel IPS in a WhatsApp conversation from her village Miratu, on the left bank of the Volta Grande.
The Juruna’s struggle, which they say will fight for all humanity, was intensified thanks to a new assessment from the government’s environmental agency, IBAMA, in December 2019.
The agency acknowledged that the little water released by the hydropower plant does not ensure the “reproduction of life” in the Volta Grande ecosystem nor the “survival of the local population”.
A chicken coop in the village of Miratu, inhabited by Juruna indigenous people, was flooded along with other buildings when the company Norte Energia, owner of the Belo Monte hydropower plant, dumped excess water in the Volta Grande section of the Xingú River. “Today the locks control the river,” and not the natural cycles of the river, explains indigenous leader Bel Juruna. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS For this reason IBAMA wants to increase the water in the “reduced flow section” where it is about 20 percent of the previous normal flow, as described in the so-called “consensus hydrograph”, which defines the month flows into the natural channel of the river based on what was deemed necessary in 2009 to keep the ecosystem alive.
Citing data analyzed since 2015, when Belo Monte filled its reservoirs, Ibama engineers pointed to the need for better water distribution between electricity generation and livelihood.
The Ibama environmental analysts recommended a preliminary hydrograph for this year with a significant increase in volume for the Volta Grande in the period from January to May, especially in February (from 1,600 to 10,900 cubic meters per second) in March (from 4,000 to 14,200 m3 /) s) and April (from 8,000 to 13,400 m3 / s).
In the future, Norte Energia will present studies to create a final hydrograph.
But the top IBAMA officials delayed the proposed measures, and thereafter the company challenged them in court. It lost in the first and second instance and did not meet the requirements of October and November.
The Attorney General decided to intervene and ordered the IBAMA to draft sanctions against Norte Energía for failure to comply with the provisional hydrograph, the flows required for 2021 to enforce the precautionary principle and the measures to ensure that the company carried out the complementary studies on the long-term hydrograph.
A strong flow of water in the first few months of the year and “for at least three months” is necessary for fish and turtles to breed and feed, said Juarez Pezzuti, professor of biology at Pará Federal University, expert on turtles.
Bel Juruna is a leader of the Miratu village owned by the Juruna people in the Volta Grande des Xingú in the eastern part of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The young woman protests against the changes in the river that have disrupted the life of the riverside communities since the Belo Monte hydroelectric power station was built. And ironically, the plant has started to show that it is energy efficient. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS “Increasing the flow only in April is not a solution. It is important to have a volume of water that floods extensive forest areas to the required level and at the right time, for example for the larvae you fry and thus the Food chain developed normally, “he told IPS over the phone from Ananindeua, where he lives, in the Amazon state of Pará.
For life along the Xingú River, “low rainfall in winter” is more severe than severe droughts in the dry season or “summer” in the Amazon, “he said.
The battle is at a pivotal moment as IBAMA’s actions – unexpectedly under President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government cracking down on the environment – have been rejected by the Energy Regulator and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, which claim that changing the hydrograph would lead to energy insecurity and higher costs for consumers.
Pezzuti believes that, regardless of the outcome of this dispute, Belo Monte is facing increasing economic difficulties due to the worsening drought in the Xingú Basin caused by climate change and intense deforestation.
The crisis of 2016, when the Juruna indigenous people complained that fish were becoming less and less and that they were “thin” due to the drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, is a warning for the future, he said.
Since the mega-hydropower project was approved in 2009, numerous critics, including environmental agencies, indigenous peoples, university researchers, and energy experts, have warned of the risks to the company itself in addition to the social and environmental damage.
The project, which was inaugurated on November 27, 2019 after the completion of the 18 generation units of the main plant, was highly praised for the innovative channel. However, it turned out to be a deceptive solution, both for the company and for the affected population, who have suffered irreversible damage.
“For the Juruna people, this has an impact not only on food, but also on our culture, which is fishing, tending the river, providing food, income and navigation, to go to the cities and visit the neighbors’ communities and have fun. It’s what brings joy to our lives, “said Bel Juruna.
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