Patagonia boasts one of the world’s great water reserves, with deep glacial lakes, two of the planet’s largest non-polar ice fields and powerful, pristine rivers rushing from the Andes to the Pacific. It’s a dream if you’re a salmon, a nature lover or kayaker. Or a hydroelectric company.
Energy is a hot topic in Chile, where natural resources are few. Spurred by fears of a pending national energy crisis Spanish–Italian multinational Endesa and Chile-based conglomerate Hydro Aysén are laying plans for large-scale dams throughout Patagonia. By some estimates, 12 Patagonian rivers, including the Baker, Pascua, Futaleufú, Manso and Puelo, are threatened. A study by the University of Chile found that tourism, the region’s second-largest industry, would take a severe hit if the dams are built. While the dams would provide a short-term energy solution, in the long term they would transform one of the greatest wildernesses on earth into an industrial engine.
Popular views construe the project as necessary to protect the nation’s energy reserves, but in fact the public sector uses only a third of Chile’s energy – over half is consumed by the mining industry. Pristine ecosystems and rural farms are at stake, but an even greater issue is building the world’s longest transmission lines. Thousands of high-voltage towers would run 2415km to bring power to Santiago and mining operations in the north.
‘As a planet we are in a freshwater crisis and global warming will make it worse,’ assures Aaron Sanger of International Rivers. ‘These rivers are immensely valuable. We should safeguard our remaining sources of freshwater.’
In the Puelo Valley, the flood zone would put the farm and family burial ground of third-generation subsistence farmer Segundo Cardenas underwater. A century ago, the government gave citizens incentives to populate this remote region. In a reversal, it’s now asking Patagonians to give up their waterways and in some cases their livelihood. Some feel that the country is pil-laging its resource-rich south to feed the energy-hungry north.
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ Cardenas wondered. ‘When you build a house, would you take a board from one wall to patch another? That’s what Chile’s doing.’