Financial Cracks Appear in Portugese Dam Project

LISBON, Portugal, May 1, 2001 (ENS) - The controversial dam under construction on the Guadiana River at Alqueva, Portugal faces new legal challenges this week as European Commissioners prepare to visit the site to investigate alleged financial mismanagement.

The US 1.43 billion project being built by Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infra-estruturas do Alqueva, S.A., (EDIA) is partly funded by European Union taxpayers.


Construction underway on the Alqueva dam (Photo courtesy EDIA)
Campaigners against the dam say that a 135 square kilometer (52 square mile) area inhabited by the highly endangered Iberian Lynx is being illegally cleared to make way for the dam.

SOS LYNX, the conservation group which first alerted the international community to previously unseen official documents showing confirmed lynx sightings where the dam is being built, has filed official complaints with the European Commission demanding that work be suspended.

The group says the clearances contravene European Union legislation, including the Habitats Directive, and is demanding the Commission investigate why an official environmental impact assessment of the project - which warned that several species of animals, fish and plants could become extinct - failed to include the Iberian Lynx, which the European Union lists as a priority protected species.

European Union laws prohibit development in areas which can interfere with lynx habitats.

Representatives of the European Commission are set to visit the Alqueva area on Thursday after the repeated failure of the Portuguese authorities to deliver progress reports demanded by Commissioners into how European Union money is being spent on the project, to create Europe's largest artificial lake.

According to campaigners against the dam, Commission staff have had to resort to asking Portuguese environmental groups for copies of official government documents.

There have been allegations that European Union Cohesion Fund money has been illegally used to build a hydroelectric complex at the site.

Proponents of the dam say the reservoir it will generate is the only one the River Guadiana has below Badajoz, so it will regulate the lower reach of the river and will allow Portugal to take advantage of the waters of a river that runs through its territory but which have not been fully exploited.

dam The water in the reservoir behind the dam is intended for irrigation of about 110,000 hectares (272,000 acres) in the Portuguese region of the Alentejo. A 240 megawatt hydroelectric power station will be created.

The project has been plagued by delays, including the discovery that the main dam wall - which is nearing completion - has been built on a double seismic fault line.

The project managers say the fault in the left bank of the enclosed area is being handled backfilling the material in the gallery and substituting it with concrete.

A new battle has now broken out following the discovery of prehistoric Stone Age engravings in areas due to be inundated later this year.

The development consortium responsible for the dam, EDIA, had earlier said they had carried out "an exhaustive survey" costing three million pounds (US$4.3 million) which had found nothing.

But amateur archaeologists last week found a series of open air engravings along a 10 kilometer (six mile) stretch of the banks of the River Guadiana which EDIA plans to submerge. Some were found a few meters from an old water mill which EDIA documents show was surveyed just months ago. Experts today confirmed the engravings date back to the Bronze Age.

It has now emerged that EDIA personnel were told three years ago about almost identical engravings a few miles away on the Spanish side of the river. EDIA says that it had planned to re-open its study but - according to spokesman Antonio Carlos Silva - had not done so "because of the weather we have been having."


The River Guadiana at Alqueva (Photo courtesy EDIA)
Archaeologists, who say the findings could date back as far as 20,000 years, have called for work on the dam to be suspended pending a truly independent international commission to study the engravings.

The International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) called the latest developments "serious and scandalous," and has demanded an urgent audience with Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio. Mila Abreu, spokeswoman for IFRAO, said, "Scientific work of this nature cannot be carried out by institutions run by political nominees."

The engravings are being hailed as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in recent times. They are almost identical to Ice Age engravings found at Foz Coa, in northeastern Portugal in the 1990s, in an area that was also due to have been submerged by a large dam.

The engravings at Foz Coa were kept secret for two years before the whistle was blown by British archaeologists and an international campaign lobbied successfully for the dam to be abandoned.

Manuel Calado, Professor of Archaeology at Lisbon University, said of the Alqueva scandal, "This is another Coa."

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose first major decision on coming to power was to order stop to work at Foz Coa, has said that "the importance of Alqueva to the national economy" means that Alqueva will go ahead regardless of the engravings.

Campaigners argue that there is no justification for the dam, which is officially being built to provide irrigation for local farmers. They point out that the area's existing irrigation network is used at less than 50 percent capacity.


The world's most endangered wild cat, the Iberian lynx (Photo courtesy La Web de los Animales)
EDIA has been promoting the new dam as a tourist facility at international trade fairs, and dozens of multi-million dollar planning applications have been submitted to local authorities by multinational corporations to build new golf courses, casinos, health spas, private island resorts and water sports facilities in and around the new lake.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have dubbed the dam Europe's biggest environmental catastrophe of the 21st century. They warn that the dam will lead to greater desertification as well as pollution in one of the last wild woodland valleys of Europe.

Siobhan Mitchell, international spokeswoman for SOS LYNX, said, "This area is one of the most ecologically rich in Europe. Official reports show that several species of animals, plants and fish found nowhere else in the world will be lost forever because of this dam."

"It is also one of the best lynx habitats still left. It is incredible that when such a unique species as the Iberian Lynx is teetering on the brink of extinction, that one of its prime habitats should be deliberately destroyed."

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates there are fewer than 800 Iberian lynx remaining in isolated pockets in Spain and Portugal, though they were once common throughout the Iberian Peninsula and into the south of France.