Hidroelectrica Chixoy (Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam)

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The Hidroelectrica Chixoy is a project that was conducted by the Guatemalan government with support from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank during the 1970s and 1980s, in the context of the 36 year Armed Conflict. Initially, the dam was designed, where Rio Negro meets Rio Chixoy in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz, to be the flagship of a new energy sector in Guatemala, exploiting its vast waterways. Specifically, the Chixoy Dam was the first of these projects aimed at generating a new and much higher quantity of energy, 300MW, for the capital. In the decades since the dam’s construction it has come under increasing criticism by national and international observers for its significant cost over estimate, poor performance, and the severe environmental and human costs associated with its implementation. Most prominently, it has been argued by the Maya-Achi, the native population that was forcibly displaced, that the five Rio Negro massacres were used specifically as a means of removing the population in order to construct the dam. Institutions of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, as well as numerous NGOs have corroborated these allegations and aided the Achi’ in seeking justice and reparations.


Guatemala (Basin: Grijalva-Usumacinta)

Project Dates: 1976-

Background and Construction

In the 1970s and 1980s Guatemala was in the midst of a full armed conflict between insurgent forces with popular support in the countryside and capital and the military government’s armed forces. All told the war claimed upwards of 250,000 causalities and displaced over 1 million. The most intense stage of the conflict was between 1978 and 1984 during the respective regimes of General Romeo Lucas Garcia, General Efrain Rios Montt, and General Oscar Mejia Victores, the former two of whom in the post-conflict peace have been charged and tried of committing genocide. This is the national context in which the Chixoy Dam was planned and implemented.

The Government that took office in 1974 adopted as a major policy objective the development of the country's hydroelectric potential and the overall strengthening of the energy sector. The Government's new emphasis coincided with the completion of the first phase of a master plan for the development of the electric system which grew out of discussions between the Bank and the Guatemalan authorities in 1972 and was financed by a technical assistance grant from the Federal Republic of Germany. This work enabled the Government for the first time to design and implement a long term development strategy for the country.

In consideration number 8 of the World Bank proposal the stated purpose of the project was “to accelerating investments in the electric energy sector, where rapid action is required to prevent energy shortages from becoming a bottleneck in the country's development.” This preoccupation with energy came shortly after the 1972 Oil Embargo, which despite its low energy consumption, worried Guatemalan business leaders of their dependency on foreign oil, thus stimulating an interest in developing renewable national resources. At the time Guatemala was one of the most poorly energy supplied Central American countries and had one of the lowest per capita income, as well as highest income disparities. The Bank however, predicted that Guatemala’s expected value for annual consumption of electricity to rise from 184kWh at the time to 400-500 kWh per capita.[1]

Consideration 25 of the proposal developed further this plan to develop energy by exploiting Guatemala’s waterways: “the country has a large, technically exploitable hydroelectric potential which is estimated at 4,300 MW. This contrasts sharply with the 121 MW (less than 3 percent of the potential) in installed hydroelectric capacity. Guatemala should also have an exploitable geothermal potential, as the geological characteristics of the country are similar to those of El Salvador and Nicaragua, where the feasibility of geothermal-based power development has been established.” From the map constructed by the Guatemalan NGO Resistencia de los Pueblos, a Maya-campesino movement that seeks to coordinate efforts by communities facing megaproject implementation on their lands, the original 1970s plan is continued today through the construction of many more dams set into “hydroelectric energy rings (or circuits).”

Furthermore, the FAO states that the average basin supply area for a hydroelectric plant in Guatemala, is 70,000 ha, however, with great variation. The Chixoy dam is the main source of this variation, as a large outlier. Its water supply area is just over 0.5 million ha and generates about 300MW. Discounting the Chixoy, average water supply areas drops to 32,000 ha. On the other hand, the smallest area is just under 4,000 ha for the San Isidro plant, which generates about 3.0 MW. When comparing the relative output by size, we find again that the Chixoy is actually underperforming comparative to other national projects. The mean output per hectare is 1.04 KW, whereas the Chixoy supplies only 055KW/ha. Instead, data shows that medium sized plants tend to be of much higher value. Thus the highest-value water supply area, at 3.45KW/ha, is the 13,100 ha upper watershed of Río Las Vacas, which provides water to the 44MW Las Vacas plant.[2]

At the time the World Bank and partner institutions were relatively unconcerned by the breadth of the project because of the Aguacapa Dam (90 MW) in Guatemala for which the Bank had given a loan for US$55 million in 1977, a year before the proposal for Chixoy. However, with only a year between the two, there had been virtually no time to test the Guatemalan method for implementation and management. The Chixoy Dam was estimated initially to cost US$372.7 million however, even by 1981 cost rose to US$630 million, and have an annual return of 13%.

Environmental Considerations

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Aquastat, Guatemala receives about 111 billion m3 of water annually, giving an average availability of 8,600 m3 per person per year.[3] Total water withdrawal were estimated to be about 2 billion m3 in 2000, or less than 2% of the country’s total renewable water resources. Among the major sectors, agriculture accounts for over 80.5 percent of withdrawals, followed by industrial users (13.5 percent) and domestic users (6.5 percent).

In February of 1976 Central America suffered a massive earthquake of 7.6 magnitude which caused devastation across 9,000 sq km including some of the most heavily populated part of Guatemala. The World Bank stated that, “while the loss of life was substantial and a fifth of the nation's people were left homeless, the country's agricultural and industrial production capacity was not heavily damaged.”[1] It reconstruction efforts are estimated to have cost US$1.1 billion. However, the geological investigations determined no risks to the project by either the Motagua fault or the Polochic-Chixoy-Cuilco fault line. Nevertheless it was designed to withstand sever seismic effects and has suffered no damage to date.

Human Rights Concerns

In a brief section reflecting on the local context, the proposal to the World Bank made note that in the affected area lived indigenous groups as well as Guatemalans “proper.” The language used in the paragraph indicate that there were “two groups”, one being “Indians” of whom “40% live on the margin of society” (UN estimates at the time calculated 60%) with “sharp ethnic divisions.” However, this context did not garner more consideration other than the need to resettle the communities. A study performed by the Instituto Nacional de Electricficación (INDE) stated that the “sparsely populated, some 1,500 people would need to be relocated” but that the “project’s environmental effects would not be significant.”[2]

In 1976 the INDE informed the residents of Rio Negro and Pueblo Viejo that they planned to build a dam 4 miles downstream and that the flooding would create a reservoir 31 miles along the length of the Chixoy Basin. The community members argued that this would force them to give up their ancestral lands where they had lived of centuries. After a forced resettlement, the communities began to demand that the government respect its promises of support and reconstruction with the communities to regain a level of living equal or greater than before their displacement. Under dubious motives, the government requested that all the communities’ land titles be sent in for revision of their legal resettlement and rights to claims, however, months later when the communities requested that their titles be returned the government claimed to have never received them.[4] This moment marked the beginning of community organization to compel the government to fulfill its promises and regain their land, to which they could no longer prove any legal claim. In response, the government used army organized civil militias (PAC) to cleanse the population out of the resettled areas, under the pretext of a counter-insurgency campaign again the guerilla forces. Subsequently, the area underwent a series of brutal massacres in 1982 at the hands of the army and PAC.[5]

Approximately 23 communities were affected by the construction of the dam down river. Some communities from areas surrounding the river were relocated and incorporated into other communities. Some of the communities relocated were in poverty situation and others of them in extreme poverty. This plan was only partly implemented and the degree of implementation varied from one community to another. Presently, some 30 years after the dam was built and the river basin filled, the members of the affected communities are living in poverty without economic activities to sustain them. Basic services are scarce. There is a lack of adequate housing. Many residents of the communities in poverty situations and in extreme poverty suffer health problems and there is a lack of education opportunities for the children.

In response to this problem, in 2007 the Korean Poverty Reduction Fund donated US$96,000 for aid and reconstruction, dependent upon a local effort of USS20,000 for institutional support of the plan.[6]

Witness for Peace in their report A People Damned cites Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank saying, “The World Bank is the flagship of all the development banks in the world. All regional development banks, specialized development banks, bilateral development banks, and national development banks follow the lead of the World Bank” in arguing the severity of its complicity in the mal-implementation of Chixoy.

  1. ^ 1.0 1.1 World Bank. 1978. Report and Recommendation of the President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development to the Executive Directors on a Proposed Loan to Instituto Nacional de Electrificacion With the Guarantee of Republic of Guatemala for The Chixoy Power Plant Report No. P-2354-GU. Washington DC: World Bank.
  2. ^ 2.0 2.1 Pagiola, Stefano et al. 2007. Mapping Environmental Services in Guatemala. Environment Department. Washington DC: World Bank.
  3. ^ FAO. 2013. Guatemala Fact Page. AQUASTAT. Rome: FAO. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/data/cf/readPdf.html?f=CF_GTM_en.pdf
  4. ^ Witness for Peace. 1996. “A People Dammed: The Impact of the World Bank Chixoy Hydrolectric Project in Guatemala.” Washington DC: Witness for Peace
  5. ^ CEH. 1999. Volume VI, Annex I, Illustrative Case 10: Massacre and elimination of the Community of Rio Negro.Guatemala, Memoria del Silencio. Guatemala: Comision para el Esclarecimineto Historico.
  6. ^ Korea Poverty Reduction Fund. 2007. “Guatemala Plan of Operations: Strategic Plan for the Integral Development of the Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Project.” GU-T1061. publication online at http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=921773

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