Mar 03 2006

Thjórsárver Wetlands – Is ‘The Heart of Iceland’ Really Safe from the Nature Killers?


March 2007

Tjórsárver are certainly not safe yet. Since the below was written the Conservatives have taken over the majority in Reykjavík City Council. They hurriedly sold the council’s 45% share in Landsvirkjun to the State. Since that Landsvirkjun have announced that they want to go ahead with destroying Thjórsárver. However, they first want to make three dams in the lower part of the river of Thjórsá. This is also opposed by many people, including locals. Work on the three dams is due to start in the autumn of 2007. They are to provide energy for the enlarged ALCAN factory at Straumsvík in Hafnarfjörður. The people of Hafnarfjörður will vote in a referendum on this enlargement 31 March. It seems the inhabitants of Hafnarfjördur hold the fate of Thjórsá, Langisjór and Thjórsárver in their hands. If they vote in favour of ALCAN the rest of the Icelandic nation and the international community will have to step in.

February 2006

As a response to the recent rise in greater awarenes of environmental issues in Iceland, which is a direct result of our struggle in 2005, Reykjavík City council (who owns 45% of Landsvirkjun) finally ruled in January 2006 that they oppose any further destruction of the Thjórsárver wetlands. This has forced ALCAN to relinquish their claims on energy from Thjórsárver and Landsvirkjun to “put aside” their plans for the Ramsar listed site.

This is a great victory for environmentalists and shows that our struggle is already having desired results. But the licence of Landsvirkjun to tamper with Thjórsárver remains to be revoked by parliament. The cancelation of the Nordlingaöldu project (Thjórsárver) also puts other areas in greater danger. This may be the case with one of Europe’s most beautiful lakes, Langisjór and the geothermal areas all over Iceland. “The monster must be fed.”

Older intro:

The Thjórsárver wetlands are under imminent threat by the National Power Company’s (Landsvirkjun) ‘Nordlingaalda Diversion’ which is to fuel the ambitions of Century Aluminum Company (Nordural) and ALCAN to expand their factories in the fjord of Hvalfjörður and at Straumsvik, both near Reykjavík. Century also aim to build a new smelter in Helguvík (near Keflavík international airport.) Local people have opposed the ‘Nordlingalda Diversion’ for many years but have been deprived of the right to make the final decision on the issue. This power lies now with the Minister of the Environment. So far her stand has been in keeping with the government’s ruthless drive towards heavy industrialisation. Thjórsárver are bound to become the next great battlefield between environmental concerns and power abusing short term greed.

From INCA:

The Thjórsárver wetlands of central Iceland are a unique ecosystem. Bounded by the Hofsjökull glacier to the north and by volcanic deserts to the east, south and west, these lush wetlands are characterized by tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds. Covering some 120km2, they are an important oasis in an area with very little or no plant cover.

The area is a hotspot for biodiversity. BirdLife International have recognized the Thjórsárver wetlands as an Important Bird Area, primarily because of its importance for the Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrynchus). With 6–10,000 breeding pairs, the Thjórsárver wetlands support one of the largest breeding colonies of these birds in the world, and provide a moulting site after their summer migration. The wetlands are also an important breeding area for other tundra birds, including the Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) and Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Indeed, the wetlands probably have more breeding birds than any other area in the central highlands. In addition, the wetlands have more vascular plant and moss flora than any other area in the otherwise barren central highlands. The lichen flora of the permafrost mounds (palsas) is also diverse and includes some rare species.

The wetlands are also a hotspot for controversy, which has erupted once again. The issue is whether the building of reservoirs and other infrastructure for hydroelectric power development within the wetlands should go ahead.

The Thjórsá River is vital not only to the Thjórsárver wetlands, but also to Iceland’s hydroelectric industry. Together with its tributaries, the river generates most of the electricity produced by the country. This electricity is used for domestic purposes as well as for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting.

Proposals to flood the Thjórsárver wetlands as part of further hydroelectric developments go back more than 30 years. In the 1960s, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, announced plans to construct a 200km2 reservoir that would have inundated almost all of the wetlands, including the breeding grounds of the Pink-footed Goose. In response to public opposition, the project was abandoned in 1981 and the Icelandic government established the Thjórsárver Nature Reserve in part of the wetlands.

This protection is not absolute however. A provision was included that still allows Landsvirkjun to build a dam in the area, provided that the project is found acceptable by the government’s Nature Conservation Agency and provided that scientific research shows that the dam will not harm the wetlands.

Accordingly, Landsvirkjun proposed a 30m-high dam with a smaller reservoir covering some 65km2. Facing mounting criticism from both scientists and the local population, Landsvirkjun lowered its ambitions again, and is now proposing a 24m-high dam with a 32.5km2 reservoir.

To move the dam project forward, on 30 April the utility released a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Landsvirkjun argues that its current development plans will affect only a minor part of the wetlands’ vegetated area, and that this is the most economical hydroelectric development scheme available if the company is to provide energy for an expanding aluminium smelter close to the country’s capital, Reykjavik.

But conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association are concerned by the loss of habitat for the Pink-footed Goose that the flooding will cause. In addition, there are fears that the reservoir will cause desertification as a consequence of erosion from riverbanks and changes in ground-water level. The latter could also affect the fine balance between permafrost and tundra vegetation in this area. In addition, although Landsvirkjun is trying to sell the project as renewable energy, scientists estimate that approximately one third of the water volume in the reservoir will be lost in little more than half a century due to sedimentation.

The public too are not happy with the proposal to flood the Thjórsárver wetlands. Public awareness and support for conservation has increased in the 21 years since the wetlands were protected, and last year the local population adopted a unanimous resolution against hydroelectric development in the wetlands.

The irony is that the Icelandic government itself also recognizes the importance of the wetlands. In 1990, the government added a 37,500ha area to the List of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar List). This listing obliges the government to maintain the ecological character of the Thjórsárver wetlands — seemingly at odds with the plans of its own power company to flood the area.

Environmental groups believe there are alternatives to further hydropower developments that could be used for the aluminium smelter, such as harnessing Iceland’s geothermal energy. Indeed, the Ministry of Industry has explored possibilities for providing energy from other sources, and according to press reports from May last year, alternatives are available.

For the dam to go ahead, the project must be accepted by the Nature Conservation Agency, local authorities, and the State Planning Agency. As things stand, it appears the first two groups will not accept the project. Following submissions from the public, the State Planning Agency will rule on the EIA in early July. This ruling can be either for or against the project. At present it is not clear what will happen if the State Planning Agency rules for the project without the support of the Nature Conservation Agency and local authorities. However, given the uniqueness of the area as well as its international importance, many in Iceland are hoping that their government will take measures to prevent any damage to the Thjórsárver wetlands.

Further information:

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The convention is the only global environmental treaty dealing with a particular ecosystem. There are presently 131 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1150 wetland sites, totaling 96.3 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

BirdLife International
BirdLife International is a partnership of non-governmental conservation organisations with a special focus on birds who, together, are the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life. One of the most important element of their programme is the identification and protection of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) which represent outstanding ornithological importance. BirdLife International is represented by the Icelandic Society for Protection of Birds (ISPB) in Iceland.

No Responses to “Thjórsárver Wetlands – Is ‘The Heart of Iceland’ Really Safe from the Nature Killers?”

  1. Bjarni Friðjónsson says:

    “What kind of government wants to tear the ‘heart’ out of its own country to generate energy for a highly polluting industry that generates little for the national economy!?”

    A good question…

  2. Tess says:

    One that is so immersed in decadance that they cannot see farther than their own term in office. If they want to have a stable environment to lead their country from, they would stop this now.