EcoAlert: Chile Moves Ahead Damming Patagonia’s Pristine Wild Rivers


The Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia is threatened by a plan to build five dams on the Baker and the Pascua rivers – two of the wildest most pristine rivers on the planet, expected to generate 2,355 megawatts of electricity, with a 2000 kilometer-long transmission line strung, north-to-south, across the heart of Patagonia. Before it reaches a fjord that links it with the Pacific Ocean, the Pascua races for forty miles between the two largest ice-fields on Earth outside Antarctica and Greenland, cutting its path between two jagged mountain ranges. Born in South America's deepest lake, the Pascua is one of the fastest rivers in the world, embedded in a maze of canyons draining snow-capped peaks and glaciers.

The devastation the project will wreak across the entire region will be enormous. Presently, Patagonia, Chile is one of the last, truly unexploited wilderness regions in the world. With the rising price of fossil fuels, the looming crisis of global warming, and Chilean dependence on foreign energy, the Chilean government insists it needs the HydroAysen Project as a vital, clean renewable source of energy for the future of the country.

It’s also one of the most secluded. Today there is only one road that will take you anywhere near the Pascua. Known unofficially as ‘Pinochet’s Road’ for the former Chilean dictator who pushed for its construction, the road is officially named after the military work camp at its end: O'Higgins.

The Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (Rave), an initiative of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), set up to address the challenges of modern conservation, visited the area in February this year to assess what impact the dams would have on the surrounding area and its way of life.

The expedition team included the Pulitzer prize winner and National Geographic photographer Jack Dykinga and twice World Press winner and Prince's Rainforest Project award winner Daniel Beltra.

The three dams on the Pascua River (below) would create artificial lakes flooding more than 1,600 hectares (about 4,000 acres). Flooded lands would include some of the world’s rarest forest types, including the critically endangered plants. Other rare species that would be harmed by the Pascua dams include the torrent duck and the white-bellied seedsnipe.

The water supplying 80 per cent of the world's population is exposed to "high levels of threat," according to a study that surveys the status of rivers throughout the world, and looks at their effects on both humans and the ecosystem at large.

Writing in Nature (vol 467, p 555), Charles Vorosmarty of the City College of New York and colleagues presented data on factors affecting water security, from dams that reduce river flow in Patagonia, for example, to the pollution and destruction of wetlands.

They produced two maps showing the levels of threat to humans and to ecosystems that rely on rivers. The maps are virtually identical, with the continental US, Europe and south-east Asia facing the greatest threats, to both humans and the wider ecosystem.


The Daily Galaxy via


"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily