The threat of mega dams
The glacier’s fate is tied to the Santa Cruz River, which runs from Lake Argentino all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. A pair of mega dams in construction on the river’s banks could flood more than 135 square miles of the surrounding region–an area almost twice as big as Buenos Aires–and transform Argentina’s last free-flowing glacial river into a series of brackish pools.
The process of approving and building the hydropower complex has been marked by legal negligence, says Manuel Marcelo Jaramillo, director general of Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (or Vida Silvestre), WWF’s partner organization in the country since 1988. “Argentine law requires anyone building a dam to complete a detailed environmental impact assessment and share it with the public before they start construction,” says Jaramillo. “But Represas Patagonia, the company managing the process, started building the dams in 2016 without that assessment.”
Although the Supreme Court of Argentina stepped in to suspend construction until that legal requirement was met, the resulting environmental impact assessment was rushed, haphazard, and didn’t allow proper public participation, says Jaramillo. What’s more, the assessment covered just part of the landscape that could be affected by the project.
“We still don’t know all of the potential negative impacts these dams could cause if they’re completed,” Jaramillo says. But Vida Silvestre and other environmental groups know enough to be worried.