Credit: GEOTA

Threat to Portugal’s Tâmega river continues – despite hydropower reprieve

Earlier this year the Portuguese government called off controversial plans for the Fridão hydropower dam on the Tâmega river, a Douro tributary – following a successful public campaign.

The Fridão project would have seen the construction of two huge dams in a seismic active zone – just 6 kilometres upstream from the city of Amarante. If a dam built there collapsed it would result in a tsunami that would flood the centre of Amarante in just 13 minutes.

Over 5500 people came together to support the campaign to stop the Fridão dam, started by GEOTA – Environment and Land Use Planning Study Group, a Portuguese NGO and member of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

But other hydropower projects as part of the Tâmega Hydropower Scheme still pose a threat to the river – an important refuge for migrating fish species.

The Tâmega Hydropower Scheme, part of the National Programme for Dams with High Hydropower Potential (NPD), is financed in large part by the European Investment Bank (EIB), which campaigners say is in direct contradiction with the EIB’s own guidelines on hydropower investment not undermining EU nature protection rules and being subject to a proper environmental impact assessment.

The ongoing construction of the Gouvães hydropower dam on the Torno River, a tributary to Tâmega, is expected to flood part of the Alvao-Marão area – a protected nature site as part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network and a crucial habitat for threatened species such as the European otter, the Iberian wolf or the Pyrenean desman.

Portuguese environmental NGOs have submitted several complaints to the European Commission concerning the NPD – from as far back as 2008.

Ana Brazao from GEOTA said: “While damns are being removed in France, Spain, the UK and Sweden, in Portugal the government seems infatuated with the idea that dams that are a solution for electricity. In recent years the government has tried to push dams as a renewable energy solution – but there is nothing green about destroying the free-flowing rivers that support nature.”

While hydropower is renewable because it does not require the burning of fossil fuels, it is not environmentally friendly as the implications for river wildlife can be catastrophic.

Despite free-flowing rivers being of undeniable importance for nature, society and economies, they have been relentlessly dammed for hydropower all across Europe for generations.

Sergiy Moroz from the European Environmental Bureau said: “Europe’s rivers are already saturated with more than 25,000 hydropower plants. These dams break up rivers and destroy wetlands, blocking fish migration routes and threatening habitats. Additional hydropower plants will directly undermine the EU’s strong rules for conserving and improving nature.”

Rivers are protected under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and often included in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

João Labrincha from GEOTA said: “If the European Commission is serious about environmental protection it should take its role as nature’s last line of defence seriously and call on Portugal to halt the construction of the entire Tâmega Hydropower Scheme before more damage occurs. From the beginning, the whole project has been characterised by a lack of transparency in the decision making process and weak assessments of how planned dams would affect river life.”

In March, Koprivnica-Križevci county in Croatia announced it would scrap plans for two new hydropower plants on the Drava River in a Natura 2000 site following a public consultation and a year-long campaign to save the Drava River from hydropower plants organised by WWF.

Four months later, in July, the Croatian Parliament passed a last minute amendment to the new Water Act that would allow destructive activities for flood defence and navigation to proceed without proper environmental assessment. A loophole in the law which campaigners say leaves the Drava River, and all other Croatian rivers, exposed to illegal and environmentally damaging development and is in breach of EU water and nature protection rules.