“The water and the people are intertwined in every way.” - Deepa Joshi, feminist and political ecologist currently coordinating two projects on the themes of environmental justice and climate change in the Eastern Himalayas.
Ms. Joshi was one of several powerful international speakers at the Hydro Impacted conference I attended last weekend in Winnipeg. Ki Ta Ski Naw, meaning “our land”, was held on the original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. Organized by Wa Ni Ska Tan, an alliance of hydro impacted communities, the conference brought together people fighting against the impacts of hydro in their communities across Turtle Island and internationally.
Overwhelmingly, downstream communities everywhere are feeling the impacts of large-scale hydroelectric dams and are largely being ignored or oppressed by government and industry alike. Many speakers pointed to a fundamental flaw in the system overall, created by capitalism - the desire for profit and for control or power outweighing the desire to do what is right for the community and the ecosystem.
Doing what is right, according to one passionate speaker from Colombia, is “not just to stop building dams, but also to take down those already established, to liberate the world’s rivers.”
The fight against big hydroelectric dams is not new, nor is it new to us. Maude Barlow, now the honourary chairperson of the Council of Canadians, outlined the arguments for our opposition back in 2013 here. The impacts to local and downstream communities are clear, but in terms of hydro being a false solution to the climate crisis, I’ll reiterate the research shows the amount of GHG emissions is extremely high, from both building the dam as well as the methane released from the reservoir area (due to rotting organic materials, predominantly).
The experiences brought forward at the conference from speakers locally and from India, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, all reflect similar devastation to the local community. The destruction to the river and environment, to local food sources as a result of mercury or methlymercury poisoning, and the displacement of people are impacts that cannot be reversed or appropriately mitigated.
Mitigation isn’t something most energy corporations or governments are interested in either way. With the Muskrat Falls dam, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador had agreed to cap the wetlands per the Independent Expert Advisory Committee (IEAC) agreement, but ultimately ran out of time and so it was never done.
In Manitoba, agreements have also been attempted by local communities with Manitoba Hydro, but from communities represented at the conference, agreements are not enough. Wa Ni Ska Tan calls on the Manitoba Government to:
- Share water rental payments received from Hydro with impacted communities.
- Commission an independent, credible body to conduct an operational review of Manitoba Hydro.
- Stop allowing Manitoba Hydro to deviate from its originally approved Churchill River Diversion Licence.
- Seriously review options to alter operations and reduce impacts before granting final licences and licence renewals.
Although a map of hydro projects has yet to be created for this place we call Canada, as far as we know, Panama is covered with dams as shown in this image.
Long-time friends of ours from Labrador, Denise Cole and Roberta Benefiel, along with US ally and new to me friend Meg Sheehan of the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance delivered a workshop at the conference entitled, “Megadams = Megadamage: Building US/Canadian Alliances Centred on Grassroots Resistance”. Lots of info shared about the resistance on the ground in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, to the Muskrat Falls project, along with the resistance happening in the north-eastern US to proposed corridors for energy transmission from Labrador. We workshopped some ideas for supporting these movements and have many plans to further develop!
All in all, it was very worthwhile to reconnect with allies from Newfoundland and Labrador, hear from other predominantly Indigenous frontline communities struggling to protect the water, the land and the local community from the impacts of hydro, and to recommit to being part of a movement - we are stronger together!