The River Artery of Hidroituango

The Ituango hydroelectric project or «Hidroituango» has its central axis, the supply of energy for the national territory. Doing this will make use of one of our most important water resources, the Cauca River. The work itself is the most ambitious among the country’s energy projects because it extends over 520,000 hectares. However, beyond the benefits to which negative news in the environmental and social spheres is sorry for reaching, negative news in the social and ecological fields has overshadowed it. In partnership with Cuatro Palabras, we spoke during the Hay Festival with Isabel Cristina Zuleta, spokes machine for the Ríos Vivos movement, about the future of hydroelectric and its impact on the Antioqueña region.

Courtesy of:  Living Rivers Movement.

The river and the dam

Public companies in Medellin, EPM, is the entity in charge of a hydroelectric plant. The Cauca River, the second largest river in the country, is the water source on which the project depends. The construction comprises a dam, an underground power plant, and two tunnels through which the riverbed is diverted. According to EPM, it will supply 17% of the country’s energy demand, which translates to 2,400 MW, and employ more than 6,000 inhabitants of the twelve municipalities around it.

For Isabel, with Hidroituango, the Cauca River ceased to occupy the second place in the importance of the country’s river arteries, «cement industries, pipes, citrus monocultures, gold mines, the Cafeteria Axis are supplied with it. Even Cali, the third-largest city in the country, supplies its water by at least 80 percent.»

Between April and May 2018, there were a series of collapses in the river, which led to the plugging of two of the project’s tunnels. EPM’s response increased the riverbed, endangering several of the surrounding populations. In January 2019, the entity reported damage to essential parts of the construction, which led to the construction gates’ accidental closure. As a result, the riverbed declined dramatically until February 8, leading to the death of thousands of fish, erosion problems, and water quality impacts.

Isabel, from her environmental perspective, argues that «the dynamics of a river is to be free, to retain it against nature. When trying to control it, it is not only water affected, but also its mountains, flora and fauna, aquatic, terrestrial life, and the communities that benefit from it. The ANLA (National Environmental Licensing Authority) knew that EPM would close the floodgates and kill marine life. Today there is a fear instilled in the populations located in the extension of Cauca. Its inhabitants feel helpless at what will happen if it trembles if the collapsed tunnel is uncovered again if the landfill and mountains do not endure if we do not recover the birds and fish.»

 Courtesy of:  Living Rivers Movement.

A social emergency

Hidroituango has an environmental management plan (LDC), with a reserve of $250 million to minimize damage in environmentally affecting situations. However, beyond environmental circumstances, economic activities such as fishing have been strongly impacted, which in municipalities such as Puerto Valdivia and Ituango are the mainstay of their economy and development.

«The Cauca River for generations has been called the ‘golden river’ because its banks’ mining is practiced. But gold is also due to the association of its waters to deities; the Nutabe settlement was in the Corregimiento de Orobajo, in the «Cañón del Cauca» section, and disappeared under the waters of Hidroituango in 2018. Today the community is fragmented, their families dispersed,» says Isabel, «the Zenú communities in Lower Cauca, the Nasa in The Upper and Middle Cauca, La Mojana and other amphibious peoples, do not have access routes other than the river. Despite the damage, these communities continue to see it,» she adds.

One feature that aggravates the situation is that the information that has been circulated has not been clear. Public opinion has a half-truth. Zuleta believes that «dismantling it is also an option; it is a dangerous project for the region and the country. If the hydroelectric station continues to operate, it will be a time bomb before another disaster occurs.»

The truth is that the case must be analyzed taking into account three options: reduce the power generation capacity of the dam by up to 40% of its size, agreeing with the promoters of the project to put security on economic interests before it; dismantling it, being an option with negative impacts on the national economy; or use transient energy sources that prioritize the environmental relationship – energy supply – territorial development, reaching up to the last mile of the remote villages using solar and wind energy while finding a solution to the drama of the Cauca river artery and hydroelectric.

Photo by Alvaro Mozo

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