Hydro’s green wash shows signs of fading

Hydroelectric power is generally promoted as a renewable, green source of energy. In Manitoba, hydroelectricity provides for the bulk of our energy needs and acts as a major energy export, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars into the province annually. However, when given a closer look, hydroelectric power loses some of its green-coating, and environmental and social damages begin to shine through.

When compared to other traditional methods of generating power, such as burning coal or natural gas, hydroelectricity is indeed a “greener” resource, making use of the natural energy inherent in the movement of large bodies of water. But “contrary to popular belief,” reported Duncan Graham-Rowe in New Scientist, “hydroelectric power can seriously damage the climate.” Reservoirs created behind dam structures flood trees and plant life that then rots underwater, releasing carbon dioxide and methane gas to the atmosphere.

The flooding of areas to create reservoirs in northern Manitoba causes many problems that often go unseen in the south. Migration of animals is interrupted, as demonstrated by the thousands of caribou that die annually in northern Quebec due to flooding from hydro dams. Once viable fisheries are rendered useless through the erosion of shorelines and the release of toxic mercury from the soil. Fluctuating water levels downstream from large dams also render once navigable waterways dangerous and speeds up the process of erosion, altering river ways rapidly.

Large areas of land traditionally used by Aboriginal inhabitants are also destroyed by the creation of large dams in the north. In 1965, then premier of Manitoba, Dufferin Roblin, announced a hydro development close to Grand Rapids, named for the rapids on the nearby Saskatchewan River. After the dam was built, the rapids disappeared and the town effectively lost its namesake, along with the livelihoods of many in the Grand Rapids First Nation who had depended on the river for food and economic stability.

In a paper for the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Peter Kulchyski and Ramona Neckoway argue that the economic benefits of hydro development in northern Manitoba, particularly in the case of Grand Rapids, “did not ‘trickle down’ or in any significant fashion improve the lives of the local people. To the contrary, social and economic devastation resulted.” Kulchyski, an outspoken critic of Hydro development in Manitoba, has written and presented extensively on the subject.

As a result of the development made possible by the Northern Flood Agreement — signed in 1977 by the Province of Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro and five northern communities — Kulchyski argues that “[a] generation of Aboriginal leaders who had grown up going out on the land for emotional and material sustenance suddenly found their territory irreparably damaged.”

Manitoba Hydro’s current mega-project is the Wuskwatim dam on the Nelson River.
Approved in 2006, the project is expected to be online in 2012, generating 200 megawatts of power. Critics of the project include Kulchyski, who wrote an article entitled “Manitoba Hydro: How to build a legacy of hatred” for Canadian Dimension in 2004 as well as environmentalists who cite high costs of the project and potential damage to the environment as cause for concern and members of the local Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation who believe that Manitoba Hydro are not honouring their end of the agreement.

By attempting to honour commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Manitoba is placed in an awkward position. With abundant resources for hydroelectric development in the north, hydroelectricity seems to be the logical answer to growing energy demands. However, in the face of scientific evidence showing hydroelectric energy to be far less green than originally assumed, not to mention the disruption of Aboriginal lands and possible infringement on Aboriginal rights, perhaps it is time for Manitobans to look elsewhere to satisfy our energy needs.