Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Ian Campbell makes this connection here…

The New York Time’s article “Brazil, After a Long Battle, Approves an Amazon Dam” published on June 1st, 2011 goes into great detail about the environmental, ecological and economical aspects behind the construction and use of the Belo Monte dam, projected to be one of the largest energy-producing dams in the world when completed in 2015.  At 295 feet tall, the primary hydrology issues with the construction of this dam is that it will cause upstream flooding of over 120,000 acres of land, much of which is located in the Amazon rainforest and will affect many indigenous people and wildlife.  Flowing from south to north, the Xingu River, whose flow and contents are vital for the growth and well-being of countless people, animals and wildlife, will experience major flooding upstream (Fig. 2), forcing an exodus of between 20,000 and 40,000 from their homes along the river to a new, unknown location (NYTimes.com, Barrionuevo, 2011).  The article seems to be giving reliable figures relating to the number of dislocated people due to water level rising from the dams height and water-retention capabilities.  The BBC said that the dam will generate 67% of Brazil’s power, which in a country of almost 200 million people is absolutely necessary (BBC, Barrucho, 2013).  The articles did not talk much about how the indigenous people were feeling or representing themselves in front of the legislative and judicial bodies, most likely because they were being underrepresented and the energy interests were of a higher priority to the Brazilian politicians.


Figure 1 – Location of Belo Monte Dam site in Para, Brazil (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8492577.stm)

Clearly the environment is greatly affected by the flood that will occur upstream of the dam, particularly the Amazon rainforest which is on both sides of the Xingu River, but the people being relocated are also a major issue to deal with.  Despite North Energy Consortium, the company building the $17 billion dollar dam, saying they will give $1.9 billion dollars for social-environmental measures to help people affected by the dam and offset environmental affects; the damming will take away certain things that cannot be repaid with money.  While the government has devoted $314 million dollars to helping relocation victims, it is nowhere near enough to counter the colossal damages that families, animals and the Amazon will ensue.  Both the Brazilian House of Representatives and senate voted to open up protected land in the Amazon so that the flooding wouldn’t be breaking any environmental laws put into place in order to protect the rainforest.  Both the past Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula, and his successor Dilma Rousseff, agree with all measures to build the hydroelectric dam, as they see it as an economic opportunity to flourish off of the Brazilian populations high energy demand.  They see fueling the energy demand as more important than ending the increasing amount of rainforest being deforested in the name of industrialization and modernization.  While dams can prevent the flooding of dams downstream, there is no way to prevent the flooding upstream of a dam, and unfortunately upstream of where the dam is being constructed is in the middle of the Amazon rainforest (Fig. 3).


Figure 2 – Map of Xingu River in Parà, Brazil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Xingurivermap.png)

A major point I think that got left out is how a large abundance of methane, a prominent greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere from the major flooding of farmlands and other large areas.  The flooding to a large area of plants will cut off the oxygen supply from the atmosphere, resulting in anaerobic fermentation of soil organic matter. Methane, a major end product of anaerobic fermentation, is released from submerged soils to the atmosphere through the roots and stems of plants.  This has been observed in China, as a large influx of methane was discovered in the early 2000’s when the Three Gorges Dam flooded upstream farmland dedicated to growing rice (CIESIN.org).  In an energy-demanding world where power outputs damage the atmosphere so greatly, the last thing we need is additional environmental repercussions adding more pollutants to the atmosphere from large scale engineering projects such as dams.


Figure 3 – Close up View of Xingu River in the Amazon Rainforest (http://www.amazonrainforestnews.com/2011/06/last-chance-to-see-amazons-xingu-river.html)