Sep 22 2006

The Kárahnjúkar Elegy by Hanna Björk

Christopher Lund

By Hanna Björk

Saying that the Kárahnjúkar dam has been controversial is an understatement. This hydro-power project, planned by Iceland’s government to dam glacial river flows and produce hydroelectric power for Alcoa’s aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður, east Iceland caused a debate that started a few years back. It has only been escalating.

The decision to provide Alcoa with hydroelectric power from the Kárahnjúkar dam was signed on March 15, 2003 without much resistance from the public. People in east Iceland celebrated and found new hope in the project. Unemployment and the lowering of real estate prices had been plaguing the inhabitants of the east regions of Iceland. They were beginning to despair for their future. They flocked to the capital, causing heavy depopulation through the rugged fjords they had once called home. For years politicians had been betting on the force of our nature, the waterfalls and rivers ability to provide electricity through dams as the key to a better future for these people. For a long time heavy industry was seen as the solution to the problems rural communities in the east were facing. Since the decision to go ahead with the dam, the controversy grows and debates take place at all levels of Icelandic society. The information is enormous and the different views and opinions are endless. It is easy to feel swamped by information overkill and the size of the issue the huge impact it will have on Icelandic nature, our society and our status as an independent nation. The biggest damage comes from filling the Hálslón lagoon that will reach through vast space of wilderness. At the end of this month the first water will flow into Hálslón and the lagoon is estimated to have reached its full size in fall 2007. In this vast space, delicate nature, waterfalls, glacial rivers, mountains, canyons, fields of black sand, rare flowers, pink-footed geese and reindeer will be lost. It seems that at the last minute (which is typically Icelandic of course) there has been an awakening in society. Suddenly Icelanders realize what exactly is being sacrificed for this project. In the early days those against the project were labelled as against people in the eastern regions. Most people in Iceland just didnt have an opinion on the matter at all. Also, most people had never even seen the area in question. Heavy pro-dam, one-sided propaganda appeared from politicians and the government, engineers and Landsvirkjun. The local communities in the east were ready to start economic growth. On the other side of the issue stood the environmentalists who had been for protecting the highlands and nature all along. Their voices have gradually been getting louder. As writers, musicians, artists, politicians, professors and professionals speak up the discourse in media more recently has been growing towards those for protecting the environment and Icelandic nature.

The Awakening

The young writer Andri Snær Magnason is perhaps the most influential in changing peoples attitudes and starting the awakening taking place at this moment. His book, Dreamland: A Self-help Book for a Scared Nation, became a bestseller overnight after its March 2006 publication and is now in its 14th printing. Last summer the family camps at Snæfell mountain held by organizations Friends of Iceland and Saving Iceland were extremely busy with visitors as well as the information site at the Kárahnjúkar dam. Journalist Ómar Ragnarsson has been busy offering sightseeing flights over the area. A large number of people have explored the area on foot on five-day treks with Augnablik, the travel organization operated by two guides, Ásta Arnardóttir and Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir, who started exploring the area in 2002 and have since brought 800 people there. This summer, demand skyrocketed. Those who have been there and seen the land going underwater do not return untouched.

A Moment of Wonder

The awakening in the society has had its effect and people want to see what is being sacrificed, says Arnardóttir, a guide for 15 years and a yoga teacher who has protested the project. The issue is much more openly discussed and people are not as afraid to speak their opinion regardless of political stand. We mark a great awakening on environmentalism and protecting nature and people are forming their opinions more from the heart. A lot of those who explored the area on the Augnablik treks were already against the construction, others have been pro-dam but a great number had not formed an opinion. It has been very interesting bringing people to the area and providing them with the opportunity to see with their own eyes what is taking place. Many acknowledge that they had no idea the landscape was so magnificent and the construction was so huge. Its not possible to realize the magnitude of the environmental impact by reading through documents or looking at numbers, Arnardóttir explains, adding that many Icelanders are visiting the area for the first time.

The walking path is on a world scale, its an easy trek and the vistas are variable. In many ways being in the area is a unique experience. Especially at Kringilsárrani where the closeness to wilderness, flocks of reindeer and pink-footed geese creates adds to a unique experience. People, myself included, have found it difficult to explain what it is exactly that makes it so spectacular. Watching the glacier river Jökla and how she forms the canyon south of Kárahnjúkar and the series of waterfalls at Jökulsá á Fljótsdal is spectacular. The closeness to Vatnajökull, Europes largest glacier and mountains Kverkfjöll and Snæfell has a great impact. This area has so many special features that cannot be described in words. When I came to the area for the first time I was very touched and surprised, it is a very deep experience. There is not much to say about it. We can read about what is being sacrificed but it doesnt have the same effect as when you see how enormous the construction is. Arnardóttir is among those who believe it is not too late to back out of this deal. She wants to see the Kárahnjúkar hydropower project abolished. Like many others she has serious doubts about the economic growth politicians dreamed about and seriously questions profits from the dam. As Andri Snær mentioned in his book I think that a conscious decision to change our minds and put an end to the dam is much better for the people in this country and our future on all levels, not just because of our nature but also because of our independence from giant corporations such as Alcoa. I think it is also very important to abandon the governments heavy industry policy. Andri Snærs book put the whole issue into context and raised questions about what we are doing with our creative energy by offering our nature for low energy prices. It is a question of what kind of future we want for our country.

Mourning in the East

More and more locals in east Iceland are realizing the impact this enormous project is having on their communities. Seventy-five percent of the construction is already finished and many are still waiting for the gold to arrive as politicians promised. The jobs have mainly gone to foreigners brought in from Poland, Portugal and China to build the dam and smelter. If lack of employment was the problem then where did the need for foreign labour come from? Þórhallur Þorsteinsson, founder and former chairman of the organization Protect the East Highlands is one of those who has always protested the project. On Saturday September 17th he went into the construction area of the dam and drew the Icelandic flag to half-mast to bring attention to the fact that not everybody in East Iceland is pro-dam. In the beginning of the debate those who were against this hydroelectric project and aluminium smelter were met with fierce response. Many grew afraid to speak their minds and even feared their employers and loss of jobs if they would make their opinions public. Today we feel that there is a growing support on our side. We are pointing out the fact that there is disagreement among people in east Iceland although we are often led to believe that everyone at home is pro-dam. Þorsteinsson believes there is a change in attitude among locals and that people are realizing that the construction has gone so far without their lives profiting to any extend. We believed that a large part of the workers on the construction sites of the dam and the smelter would be Icelanders, however they have been brought in from other countries. Population migration to the east has not happened. Locals have also begun to worry what will happen when the construction is over. Some sort of stagnation is inevitable.

Þorsteinsson says that many pro-dam locals have not visited the area that will go under Hálslón and do not realize the size of the lagoon. It seems odd that local people are often those who care the least about the land sacrificed. The reason is a one-sided introduction from the governments side and a decade-long cry for heavy industry in Fjarðarbyggð. People were getting desperate as unemployment kept rising. Then politicians created some sort of hysteria when they introduced this project as the only solution to save them from unemployment and therefore anyone against it had to be silenced. District counsellors do not care about nature if they will get money in the bank accounts. They believed that profits and economic growth would benefit their regions. The truth is that not so many have benefited from it. Other companies in the east have gone bankrupt because of the expansion and people have lost their jobs elsewhere. Expectations were brought to the people but today there is serious doubt, Þorsteinsson explains and adds that hope is perhaps the only positive thing east Icelanders have gained from this project although it was perhaps short-sighted.

Economic growth?

We are struck by the lack of transparency in the power purchase agreements in Iceland, emblematic of an era in which companies appropriate resources with little accountability and growing disdain for the earths fragile balance, Glenn Switkes wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 2002. The price Alcoa is paying Landsvirkjun for electricity is confidential, explained by Sigurður Arnalds, Landsvirkjuns spokesperson, as a means of not revealing individual contracts to competitors. Recently Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde took a sightseeing flight with journalist Ómar Ragnarsson and went on TV news with an Alcoa Fjarðarál helmet on his head; Haarde stated that although he acknowledges that the land about to be flooded is beautiful, he is keeping his eye on the prize, which is the economic growth. However, the profitability of the project remains a controversy. The criticism being that we are sacrificing too much for too little. Economist Sigurður Jóhannesson in an article written in 2001 stated that the numbers Landsvirkjun put forth on profitability indicated that it was a bad investment. A bad investment without taking into account the opportunity cost. He expected harsh criticism not only on environmental grounds but also on economic grounds. At that time Landsvirkjun expected 14 percent profitability; in August 2006 Landsvirkjun published a profitability reassessment expecting 11.9 percent profitability now that 75 percent of the construction is completed. These numbers can change due to different factors and cannot be guaranteed. Jóhannesson also pointed out that fringe benefits given to the Kárahnjúkar hydropower project was threefold: the Alcoa Fjarðarál aluminium smelter does not pay taxes of 2.5 billion ISK, secondly the land was given free of charge but what is most important is that the owners of Landsvirkjun (National Power Company), which are the government of Iceland and city of Reykjavík, guarantee the loans. Which means Landsvirkjun pays lower interest. Other companies that will yield because of heavy industry and dam constructions will not enjoy such fringe benefits. Loans backed by the government means that Icelandic taxpayers are taking a risk due to the Kárahnjúkar hydropower project. For Landsvirkjun they see the profitability in cheap loans but for the owners, the government of Iceland and city of Reykjavík there is no financial gain, says Jóhannesson.

The Radical Approach

This is the biggest mistake Icelandic politicians have made for decades, says Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, professor of philosophy at the University of Iceland. I believe there is still more to be gain from not going ahead with this. The economic growth and profits anticipated will never transpire and we are risking three percent of Icelandic nature. The main sacrifice is the filling of the Hálslón lagoon. People who have been to the highlands are shocked to see what is being sacrificed. These are two glacial rivers that will be put into tunnels, these are the highlands lifelines. The impact on the environment is irredeemable, she says. Þorgeirsdóttir and filmmaker Þuríður Einarsdóttir published an article in Morgunblaðið last year claiming it would be more profitable to abandon the project. There are examples of projects of this magnitude being stopped elsewhere in the world. For example, in Austria in 1978 a nuclear power plant had been built but because of demonstrations the plant was never put into effect and still stands unused. Even if it will cost us 100 billion to stop the Kárahnjúkar dam, and we take a loan to pay that off, this number is not that big. We are one of the richest countries in the world. We can afford it and we will gain so much more. We could use the Kárahnjúkar dam as a museum as an example that would demonstrate that Icelanders were wise enough to stop, says Þorgeirsdóttir with emphasis.

Hope for the Future?

This is a project planned by Icelands government to dam glacial river flows in large tract of wilderness and produce hydroelectric power for Alcoa aluminium smelter, a smelter that will rest on Reyðarfjörður eastern fjord. In a region Icelanders were about to desert, or so the propaganda claimed. To sell hydroelectric power to heavy industry had been on the governments agenda since they issued the booklet titled Lowest Energy Prices in 1995. Under pressure to keep its rural areas populated, the government tried to attract aluminium smelters before Alcoa jumped on the deal. However, outraged environmentalists say the country is selling its wild birthright, damaging its eco-tourist image and risking its credit rating to benefit a billion dollar American conglomerate and to win a mere handful of jobs.
How it is possible that an issue of this magnitude with such grave environmental impact and an attack on our nature and independence as a nation went through parliament without much resistance from the public and without many questions asked is mind-boggling. Iceland is one of the most educated countries in the world with a living standard among the highest in the world. How could we be so blind while our politicians took the decision to sacrifice the most valuable thing we possess in this world, our nature? It is the battle of wildlife versus voltage. A battle being waged in many parts of the world where living river systems and the human and ecological communities they support are sacrificed to satisfy aluminium giants like Alcoa. If the Kárahnjúkar dam is a lost battle at least we can prevent further dams and smelters already in the pipeline and prevent Alcoa and Alcan from growing in Iceland. We Icelanders have the opportunity and can afford to take the economic plunge, protect our nature, protect our independence, stop the dams and not fear for the future.

The article appeared first on Reykjavikdotcom (now defunct)

Photo by Christopher Lund