Fish kill on Colombia's Cauca river, caused by Medellin energy company EPM taking emergency measures to close the second of two floodgates on 5 February 2019 to fill the Hidroituango dam reservoir. The fish kill occurred in the municipality of the Guaranda subregion of the Morana Sucreña, 689 kilometers from the dam. Photo: Alirio Uribe Muñoz / Twitter

By Taran Volckhausen
7 February 2019

(Mongabay) – Colombia’s environmentalists have declared an ecological disaster after the country’s second most important river, the Cauca, was reduced to less than 10 percent of normal flow after the country’s largest hydroelectric dam project Hidroituango took emergency measures earlier this week.

Medellin energy company EPM took emergency measures to close the second of two floodgates on Tuesday to fill the Hidroituango dam reservoir. The dam was supposed to start producing power in 2018, but it has been plagued by disasters after a machine room collapsed in April of last year, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Isabel Zuleta, an activist for environmental organization Rios Vivos that works with communities alongside the Cauca, released a video filmed beside the once powerful river that now more closely resembles a slow-moving creek, denouncing EPM for what she described as “the greatest environmental crime that has ever happened in Colombia.”

Environmental activists, politicians and journalists have taken to social media to share photos and videos sent from the frontline defenders and local communities around the river. Fishing communities who depend on the river for their main source of income as well as food security have denounced the mega-project for threatening their livelihoods.

“They took away the little that we had, they took away our peace and brought us worries. The majority of the fisherman are without work, we don’t have anything we can do,” fisherman Jairo Taborda said in an interview with local media Caracol television.

Environmental licensing authority ANLA announced that it had not been informed about the emergency operation until hours before engineers closed the engine room tunnel that had provisionally discharged water after the original discharge tunnels were blocked last year. ANLA has already opened sanctions against EPM for failing to protect the ecological basin located below the dam.

Jorge Londoño, EPM CEO, said the decision was made to protect communities living downstream from the dam. “If we do not close it, it would mean the loss of water control and this could generate, in the medium term, a greater deterioration of the entire internal infrastructure, with a potential impact on the safety and lives of the communities downstream.”

Zuleta rejected the arguments made by EPM that the closure of the floodgates was made in the interest of the communities downstream who she argued were unlikely to be flooded because of dry season and El Niño conditions had lowered water levels. “The worst part about this is that they’re saying they’re shutting down the water in the name of the communities when in reality they’re only doing it to protect their own interests.”

Two members of the activist group Rios Vivos were killed near the Hidroituango dam project within a one-week period in May of last year, bringing the total to five activists who were killed while opposing the dam. [more]

Colombia’s disaster-ridden hydropower project runs second largest river dry

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