Still, it won’t be enough.
The dam and the Santo Antonio complex that is being built a few miles downstream will provide just 5 percent of what government energy planners say the country will need in the next 10 years. So Brazil is building more dams, many more, courting controversy by locating the vast majority of them in the world’s largest and most biodiverse forest.
“The investment to build these plants is very high, and they are to be put in a region which is an icon for environmental preservation, the Amazon,” said Paulo Domingues, energy planning director for the Ministry of Mines and Energy. “So that has worldwide repercussions.”
Between now and 2021, the energy ministry’s building schedule will be feverish: Brazilian companies and foreign conglomerates will put up 34 sizable dams in an effort to increase the country’s capacity to produce energy by more than 50 percent.
The Brazil projects have received less attention than China’s dam-building spree, which has plugged up canyons and bankrolled hydroelectric projects far from Asia.
But Brazil is undertaking one of the world’s largest public works projects, one that will cost more than $150 billion and harness the force of this continent’s great rivers. The objective is to help the country of 199 million people achieve what Brazilian leaders call its destiny: becoming a modern and efficient world-class economy with an ample supply of energy for office towers, assembly lines, refineries and iron works.
“Brazil is a country that’s growing, developing, and it needs energy,” said Eduardo de Melo Pinto, president of Santo Antonio Energia. “And the potential in energy production in Brazil is located, for the most part, in Amazonia. And that’s why this is important for this project to be developed.”
Jirau, Santo Antonio and other projects, though, have until now generated more tension than electricity, raising questions that range from their environmental impact to whether future generations will be saddled with gigantic debt.
International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental group that has tracked government agencies involved in the dam building, says plans call for 168 dams to be completed by2021. Most are small dams that will be used to regulate water or to power silos, mineral extraction facilities or industrial complexes. But whether the dams are large or small, homesteaders and Indian leaders say they will cause irreversible changes in a forest that plays a vital role in absorbing the world’s carbon emissions and regulating its climate.
Across Brazil, rivers are being diverted. Canals and dikes are being built. Roads are being paved, and blocks of concrete are being laid across a network of waterways that provides a fifth of the world’s fresh water.