Dam failures: what no one likes to accept

The biggest dam in Colombia was scheduled to start operating in December of this year. The mega project, Hidroituango, is a massive feat of engineering that was designed to use water from one of the country’s largest rivers, the Cauca river, to produce electricity. A lot of it. In fact, enough to cover 16% of the country’s energy needs. Even enough to export some of it.

However, what was already being celebrated as one of the most recent signs of development and managerial excellence in the country, is likely doomed to fail. About a week ago, a crisis emerged in Hidroituango and today there is a real risk that the dam will overflow causing irreparable damage to local communities and the environment.

Under the worst case scenario, the flood that would occur from the dam’s failure would impact 12 municipalities in 4 states located downstream the dam. More than 100,000 people that live in the risk area could be affected. Compared to this number, the 1985 volcanic catastrophe (arguably, the country’s worst natural disaster in modern history) seems rather harmless (23,000 people dies in Armero’s tragedy). More than 2,000 people have already been evacuated and sent to refugee camps.

It’s a tragedy. A human and environmental catastrophe. What sucks is that very little can be done about it now. But what really sucks is that Colombians seem shy if not reluctant to put blame on the project’s managers for the failure of the dam. This is not the result of bad luck. It is not environmental disaster, it is managerial disaster. It is true that it is winter in Colombia and that there has been rain galore for the past couple of months. Heavy rains have added volume to the Cauca river and have caused landslides near the site, factors that certainly don’t give relieve to the current situation. However, the real problem is that nobody saw it coming. Or that if they did, they concealed that information until it was no longer possible to deny the need for urgent action. Who was in charge of monitoring the project?

This may be a case of lunatics running the asylum. Without jumping to cynic conclusions of corruption, let’s just say this crisis is evidence of profound inefficiencies in the Colombian energy sector in particular and in the construction sector in general.

Hidroituango, or the hidroelectric project of Ituango, is a billion dollar project like no other in the country. When it was first conceived, it was seen as a symbol of progress and development, a story of men rising over the environment, a story of engineers overcoming the limitations of nature, a story of state-of-the-art planning, construction, managing, maintenance, and financing: a story of growth. The project involves a dam that iss 225 meters tall, an impoundment capable of holding 20 million cubic meters of water, and an underground station with installed capacity of 2,400 MW. The project would generate 13,930 GWh a year and create thousands of jobs: 5,000 directly and 20,000 indirectly.

The company in charge of the project is Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), a favorite among people from the region that is directly impacted by the project (people in the states of Antioquia, Cordoba, Sucre, and Bolivar). EMP is a large public utility company in Colombia. Not large, HUGE! Over its 50 years, EPM has grown to be a huge and competitive company providing electricity, gas, water, and telecommunication, in Colombia and internationally. Energy-wise, the net capacity of EMP’s generation system is equivalent to 23.5% of the country’s total installed capacity and it distributes to over 22% of the country’s residences.

In terms of hydroelectric power specifically, EPM operates 25 stations. EPM’s mission is to be a leader in public service provision and it is a symbol of regional pride, just as a “paisa” (people from a region in the northwest of Colombia which includes the states of Antioquia, Risaralda, Quindio, Caldas and some regions in the valley of the Cauca river) whether they believe in God. First, they’ll scold you for even asking, then they’ll start listing and praising all their alliances: Saint Mary the Virgin, followed by all other saints, passing through their political leaders and patrons, and wrapping it up with EPM. This is in part a joke in part a comment of truth. People in this region are noticeably conservative, traditional, deeply religious, and proud.Very proud, and a reason to be proud is to be part of EPM’s distribution network, because EPM is a national leader in engineering, financing, marketing, and community involvement.

EPM has in general a clean record. Very clean. Too clean, actually. Surprisingly clean for a large utility company in a Latin American country. There may be a reason to be suspicious about such an integral and yet vastly profitable company. After all, it is no secret that EPM, as a public company, has close connections with the regional government. The regional government. The. Regional. Government… Anybody heard of a former president named Alvaro Uribe?

Well, Mr. Uribe used to work in EPM, he also was the mayor of Medellin (and governor of Antioquia) and as such had close relations with whoever was the general EPM. I am not saying anything different than what I am saying. I am saying that the people at the top of the utility company are accountable to their political allies, so maybe they have less reasons to be optimal.

Speaking of optimal, here comes the last point I want to make. The construction of Hidroituango is responsibility of a consortium of 3 firms: 2 Colombian and one Brazilian. All of them have worked with EPM in previous projects. These guys know each other from the past and there are questions of whether the contract that EPM made with the consortium was transparent and legal. Environmemtal and social activists have pushed for imvestogations of the legitimacy of the studies used to obtain the construction permit and about possible under-the-table type of actions. The kind that are so well known to Brazilian and Colombian construction companies. (Remember the buildings in medellin that fell becaise they were built using poor construction materials?) But as you may know, in Colombia, the environmental and social activist is an enddangered species that is deliberately killed by their political enemies. The enrgy sector, the, construction industry, the power of politics, are areas plagued by lawlessness and impunity where human rights are continuously violated.

I did a quick search on the recent history of dam failures in the world. Of all the failures, in the past 10 years, the majority have occurred in… Brazil. Not that that’s indicative of any causal effect. It may just be an awkward coincidence. But even then, why nobody in Colombia is studying the dam failures in Brazil, or elsewhere for that matter, to learn how to prevent some in Colombia? Maybe because it is not profitable. It appears that playing by the rules is not as lucrative as not playing by the rules in Latin America’s business and industrial landscape (in part because the rules are not well written and the legal systems are not well equipped to hold rule breakers accountable). In turn, speaking out loud against those violating the rules is not safe in Latin America. The power structure is so imbalanced that the game is rigged for the powerful to continue winning at the expense of the people, most of whom appear to have been blinded by fanatical love of “tradition,” which includes regional pride and unconditional support to the local top dogs, regardless of their moral integrity. Any resemblance to Rusian business or to fascism is not a mere coincidence.

So that’s the story of cozy relations between energy companies and politicians. Questionable contracts, suboptimal design, poor oversight, little accountability, preservation of power imbalances and even the rise of demagogue discourses: a tragedy. A failure in the democratic capitalist fabric of a terribly unequal society. A Dam failure.

How does it end? Right now, the wealthy continue to get billion-dollar contracts while there are 100,000 people at risk of losing everything.

(I found this article that echoes my sentiment and complements the critique, I invite you to read it: https://www.revistaarcadia.com/agenda/articulo/hidroituango-tragedia-medellin-antioquia-pablo-montoya-critica/69330)



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