Commission to investigate Brazilian hydro plants' effects on Bolivia floods

The countries will look into whether the Jirau and San Antonio plants on the Madeira river played a role in the devastation in Bolivia.

While seasonal flooding is common in Beni, experts agree that climate change has added a threatening new dimension to the cyclical pattern, bringing record rainfall to most of Bolivia this year.

Deforestation, exploitation of cultivable land, and loss of infrastructure through the breakup of traditional communities are other factors contributing to soil erosion and increased vulnerability to flooding.

In the past weeks, attention has focused on the role played by two recently-inaugurated Brazilian mega-dams—the Jirau and the San Antonio—in Bolivia’s floods. Located on the Madeira River, the largest tributary of the Amazon which receives its waters from rivers in Bolivia and Peru, the dams are just 50 and 110 miles, respectively, from Brazil’s Bolivian border.

The dams are part of an even larger hydroelectric power complex planned for the area, which will include a third, binational dam (Ribeirao) directly on the border, and a fourth station inside Bolivia (Cachuela Esperanza). The dams are designed to generate electricity for Brazil’s industrial heartland, one thousand miles to the Routh.

Completion of the project will also open up a 2,600-mile industrial waterway for the transportation of (mostly Brazilian) export products—including soybeans, minerals, and timber—to Atlantic and Pacific ports. The complex is an anchor project of IIRSA, a Brazil-led initiative to integrate the continent’s infrastructure through strategic investments in energy, communications, and transportation, including the development of interoceanic land and water corridors.

In mid-February, Bolivian President Evo Morales, after surveying flooded areas of Beni and neighboring Pando, announced that “something strange” was happening in the river basin upstream from the Jirau and San Antonio dams. Although the heavy rains had subsided, the water levels were not dropping as they should have. Morales ordered an immediate investigation.

Preliminary results showed evidence of a “reflux effect,” in which the floodwaters were effectively being pushed back by the dams into Bolivia, instead of flowing out towards the Atlantic Ocean.

A bilateral technical commission has been established to further investigate the problem (while Brazil continues to publicly deny any connection between its dams and Bolivia’s flooding).

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