By Eric Robinson
The Boruca Hydroelectric Project on Costa Rica’s largest watershed, the Terraba River basin is getting closer to becoming a reality.Hydroelectricity accounts for 85% of Costa Rica’s consumption. After nearly five decades of planning, impact studies. numerous altered proposals, and controversy, it will boost the capacity of Costa Rica’s electricity infrastructure by thirty percent to keep pace with the country’s annual 5.3% increase in demand, independence from fossil fuels, and will initially produce a surplus that can be sold to other countries. The final plan called the Veraguas Option has greatly reduced many of the environmental and economic concerns that the earlier proposals created.
An earlier plan in the 1970’s and 80’s to fuel a giant aluminum production plant was dropped when the aluminum company withdrew their plans as the global economy took a hit. In the late 1990’s, the massive Boruca-Cajon and then the reduced Boruca-Veraguas proposals were put on the table, creating 709 MW of power, costing $1.4 billion, creating a 10,700 hectare reservoir with one third flooding indigenous territory, relocating an estimated 1,943 people, including 800 indigenous people, and adversely affecting the health of the Osa Peninsula and the 30,000 hectare Terraba-Sierpe Wetlands downstream. Also, 36.2 kilometers of the vital Trans-America Highway would have been rendered useless, and needed to be rerouted.
In 2004, a Columbian engineering firm contracted by ICE, Costa Rica’s electrical monopoly, devised the ingenious $979 million Veraguas Option moving the dam further upstream and diverting water into a subterranian tunnel filled with turbines to produce electricity. It would then release the water back into the river near Palmar Sur. With a slight reduction in capacity to 631 MW, the reservoir would shrink to less than half the size, only 1,068 people would have to be relocated, just three percent indigenous, far less indigenous land would be flooded, and it only affect 3.6 kilometers of the Trans-America Highway.
Still, indigenous leaders and environmentalists are not happy with the project. They claim that the water volume below the dam for twenty kilometers will be reduced to only ten percent of it’s existing volume, threatening wildlife and a few people who make their living from this area. Other concerns are climatic change caused by the green house gasses released from decomposition in the still moving reservoir. Yet others fear the potential social changes in this area caused by the 3,000 to 5,000 workers needed to build the project such as alcohol, drugs, prostitution and loss of cultural identity. The concerns are countered by promises of the benefits of this type of development for the depressed area such as better infrastructure in roads, electricity, sewers, education, telecommunications and health. In any case, while more studies continue, ICE seems to have the upperhand, and is heading towards starting the project in 2008, with electricity being produced in seven or eight years.