Home Giving a damn about Iceland’s hydro electric dams

Giving a damn about Iceland’s hydro electric dams

by admin January 19, 2010

In Iceland, if you walk along a river towards its source, you might be less struck by the country’s raw beauty than by the massive hydro electric dam blocking the way. In the last decade, many of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls and valleys have been lost to hydroelectric projects.

As exposed in the powerful documentary Dreamland, the country is quickly trading its serenity for big business. The film is worth seeing for the visuals alone. The documentary is all the more exceptional given its ability to seamlessly weave a sense of poetic narrative with stark journalistic storytelling.
The story is so well told that the film becomes its own cultural art form. It’s rare to find a documentary so complete and well-directed.
As Dreamland shows, it’s not Icelanders who need power from the hydroelectric projects. Rather, it is one big company. Alcoa has built 8212; and has plans to build more 8212; smelting plants to process vast amounts of aluminium, which is an extremely energy intensive process.

“Iceland sacrificed two large rivers to Alcoa,” said Andri Magnason, one of the film’s two directors, and author of the novel Dreamland: a Self Help Manual for a Frightened Nation. “Our government sold them cheap energy and doubled the energy production of Iceland – just to meet Alcoa’s needs. Alcoa needs enormous power – about four times more energy than the whole nation uses.”
Although Alcoa briefly helped lead a spike in Iceland’s economy, global aluminium prices dropped dramatically in 2008. At the same time, Iceland had to declare bankruptcy after its private banks failed to restructure and pay back enormous debt loads.

“The private banks seem to have dumped the dept on the nation,” said Magnason. “Many believe our only hope is building more dams for Alcoa.”
As Canadians caught in our own “economy versus the environment” quagmire, Dreamland certainly serves as more than just “something that’s happening to some island.” This is a Faustian bargain that economies more often than not deem obligatory. Industry and progress, for all the good and bad it has brought, has us exploiting our natural resources at breakneck speed. Sometimes, we may lose track of our national interest when multinational businesses are given a substantial amount of pull.
“When one company buys half your power production, it has great power,” said Magnason, referring to Alcoa’s use of of more hydroelectric power than the entire population of Iceland combined.

And this is the point this film so effectively gets across: Dreamland eloquently argues that big business is the new imperialism. Iceland has effectively succumbed to “economic hitmen” who have convinced politicians that since these projects are good for the economy, they are in fact necessary for prosperity in Iceland. The catch is, these companies have no citizenry to answer to once given free reign, and will turn countries into “self-feeding machines” that need to exploit more and more heavily.
“Much of the economic infrastructure becomes addicted to this boom economy. It diverts natural resources in an unsustainable direction,” warned Magnason.

“Iceland catches about one per cent of the fish that is caught in the world. That is quite a lot for 300,000 people. We already produce enough meat and milk for the whole nation. We have more tourists per capita than most nations in the world. We have 100 per cent renewable energy in our homes and business &- this in itself should be quite enough to sustain the economy,” charged Magnason. “But pressure groups think that we are not using the waterfalls and geothermal areas if they are left unspoiled. They want to sell it to to global giants, like Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan, and other companies.”
The film shows, through Iceland’s example, that when it comes to economy and industry, you have to really be careful what you wish for, and what you think you need.

Dreamland screens at Cinema Poltica Monday, Jan. 25 at 7:30p.m. in H-110 in Concordia’s Hall Building.

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Some Hard Facts on aluminium:

– Aluminium is the most abundant metal on earth, making up about 8 per cent of the Earth’s solid surface. It is not found as a free metal, but can be found scattered in over 270 minerals.

– Aluminium is typically extracted from bauxite-ore in places like Jamaica. It is then transported to smelting plants, which are located near power sources due to their prodigious use of energy.

– Aluminium is 100 per cent recyclable. If the United States recycled all of its aluminium every year, it would equal the 400,000 metric tonnes that Iceland produces every year.

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