Bakker in Privatizing Water explains that dams are “valued as symbolic infrastructure” and how dams are like roads in the sense that they represent the development of a nation-state. [1. Bakker, Karen. Privatizing Water: Governence Failure and the World’s Water Crisis.  New York: Cornell University Press, 2010.  Print.]   It is evident that dams act as much more than a way to manage water, but rather it extends to having political and economic motives. Dams are also inherently unfair because there will always be upstream and downstream populations. This fact makes one question who is entitled to have control over the dam, why they get the power, and how much decision making power each side has.  Nevertheless, the downstream people will always be affected by the actions or lack of actions by the upstream community, for example with aspects such as pollution.  By looking through history, it is easy to see that there are structures on inequality regarding water that often lead the people is society with less money, political power to be the ones who suffer the consequences and lack decision making power.

          In Costa Rica, safe drinking water is available to 95% of population in urban areas, and 60% in rural areas.  A United Nations expert on water and sanitation explained that Costa Rica has made significant improvements regarding water management and has one of the highest percentage of their population in the entire Latin American and Carribean areas that have safe drinking water available.  Despite this fact, the UN explains that Costa Rica’s Water Law(“Ley de Aguas”) dates back to the 1940s, and is in desperate need of an update to fit the republic’s current social, political, and economic structures. The expert also recommends that Costa Rica should reorganize and clarify the responsibilities of the water institutions that lack sufficient resources so their jobs can be carried out more effectively. [2. United Nations Expert. United Nations Human Rights: Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Press Release on Country Vists for Water and Sanitation. 27 March 2009. Web.  Feb 2014.]

          Dams in Costa Rica are mainly hydroelectric power and help aid in Costa Rica’s goal of fuel independence in order to regulate their own prices rather than importing fuels. According to Tico Times, “Costa Rica has the potential to be first country to Costa Rica has the potential to be one of the first countries on Earth to generate all of its electricity from clean, renewable sources” with hyrdroelectric energy as the “backbone of Costa Rica’s Energy Production” [3. Mack, Steve. “A Renewable Power Generation Primer.” The Tico Times.  6 Sept. 2012.  Web. Feb 2014.].  Although Costa Rica is confident in their progressing infrastructure, our site will focus on both the positive and negative implications of five main dams in Costa Rica. They include the Arenal Dam, Lake Cachi Dam, the Rio Macho Dam, the Pirris Dam, and the Diquis dam.


          This video is a clip from a Save My Planet episode aired on ABC.  Hosted by Stephen Brooks, it gives a first-hand look at Lake Arenal and its hydro-electric project.  The video includes an interview with lead engineers on the project, and covers topics including environmental impact and social response to the hydro-electric project. This video portrays the Lake Arenal Dam and Hydro-Electric Project to be environmentally friendly as well as widely favored by the local residents.



Lake Arenal Dam


          The Lake Arenal Dam was built to provide hydro-electric power to Costa Rica in 1979. This was the first hydro-electric project in Costa-Rica and marked the beginning of Costa-Rica’s rapid growth.  The dam project brought thousands of people to the area and introduced tourism to the country, but also destroyed some of the indigenous people’s sanctuaries.



Lake Arenal Hydro-Electric Emplacements

          When the dam was built, hydro-electric emplacements in Lake Arenal supplied 70% of Costa Rica’s power (about 12% today) [4. Pérez. Minutes of the Workshop on Adaptation to Climate Change in Costa Rica. Web. February 2. 2014.].

          In order to build the dam, Lake Arenal’s indigenous residents had to be relocated. The towns of Arenal and Tondadora had to be moved to make the lake bigger.  The dam project included expanding Lake Arenal from 11 sq. miles to about 33 sq. miles.  There is no denying that building this dam caused for severe change of the region, but this change brought about a booming tourism industry as well as acted as the building blocks for beginning economic growth in Cosa Rica by providing the country clean electricity.


Arenal Village - pre dam

Old Arenal (before the construction of the Dam)

          Nowadays, the town of Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica sits at the base of the world famous Arenal Volcano. Tourists come from all over the world to see this volcano and the beautiful Arenal Lake. What they don’t see, however, is what rests at the bottom of this man-made lake, the remains of the old town Arenal. This village was covered by the Arenal Lake after Costa Rica’s biggest hydroelectric dam was built [5. Arenal Volcano 1968 Eruption. ArenalNet. Web. Feb 3. 2014.]. The residents of this village were forced to move, or as the Costa Rican Government likes to call it, they were relocated to Nuevo Arenal to allow for this man-made lake. The picture above is the main street of Arenal after the Arenal volcano erupted in 1968. This is an example of water, politics, and governments can even take over villages.


Rio Macho power plant is running 24 hours to provide energy to many Costa Ricans.

Rio Macho power plant is one of the oldest power plants in Costa RIca, initially planned in 1961.


          Rio Macho Hydroelectric Power Plant is the oldest power plant, located at the upper stream of Reventazon River basin, and has been operating since 1963. The purpose of the structure was solely about providing hydroelectric power, in order to fulfill the increasing demand for electricity in central Costa Rica.[6. World Bank. 1961. Costa Rica – Rio Macho Hydroelectric Project. Technical operations projects series ; no. TO 238. Washington, DC: World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/1961/02/1554570/costa-rica-rio-macho-hydroelectric-project]. It was initially built with two small-scaled 15 megawatts (MW) generators, but through several phases of upgrades, Rio Macho Power Plant has 5 generators, with capacity of 150 MW. Currently, Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) presented another upgrade project to upgrade the plant capacity up to 140MW by 2015 [7. First phase of Rio Macho hydropower project modernization complete, Hydroworld.com. Web. 16 Jul 2013.]. For construction, ICE applied for loan of $ 8.8 million from World Bank [3. World Bank. 1961. Costa Rica – Rio Macho Hydroelectric Project. Technical operations projects series ; no. TO 238. Washington, DC: World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/1961/02/1554570/costa-rica-rio-macho-hydroelectric-project], and the recent upgrade is also funded by Inter-American Development Bank, with $ 500 million [8. First phase of Rio Macho hydropower project modernization complete, Hydroworld.com. Web. 16 Jul 2013.]. Heavily indebted ICE now has to depend on the government, and that would become a burden to Costa Ricans, in a form of higher price for water. 



Lake Cachi Dam

          Downstream of the Rio Macho further down the Reventazon river is the wonderful Cachi dam. The Cachi dam has had a significant impact on the region. Drainage caused by the dam has the Reventazon river to drain from the northeast creating a drainage of 3,000 square kilometres. Although the Cachi dam has one of the thinnest arches it still is 260 ft high and allows for 51 million cubic meters of inflow on the Reventazon river. The dam was first commissioned in 1966 and in 1978 added on it’s third unit. They are recently in the process of expanding the Cachi dam and increasing it’s size by over 25%. It is set to be finished in 2015. After this the Cachí power plant will be able to supply electricity to 330,000 homes in Costa Rica. [10. “INTERNATIONAL BANK FOR RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATION.” Appraisal of Power and Telecommunications Projects (1963): n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014]




El Diquis Dam

          The picture above is a design plan for the Diquís (Boruca) Dam.  The proposed plan would involve building a 27 square mile lake and would cost a total of two billion dollars.[10. Teribe Indigenous Cultural Association. Térraba.  Elon Univeristy, 2013.  Web. 3 Feb. 2014.] The dam would generate electricity for more than one million consumers [11. Largest Dams. Top 30 Largest Dams. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.].  The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) approved the plan for the dam to begin being built in 2018 [10. Casallas, David.  “ICE pencils in 2013 for El Diquís Construction.” BNamericas: Business insight in Latin America.  i.e. business school.  14 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.]. Unfortunately, the location of this dam comes with complications.  These complications would include how the dam would flood land belonging to an indigenous tribe, the Térraba people, and essentially it would force them to move [11. Teribe Indigenous Cultural Association. Térraba.  Elon Univeristy, 2013.  Web. 3 Feb. 2014.]. In total, the project would displace 1,547 people including Térreba people along with customs & traditions [12. Largest Dams. Top 30 Largest Dams. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.].



          The video above was made by the Teribe Indigenous Culural Assocoaion. Just as the clip explains, the Térraba Tribe has had land rights since 1956 [13. Teribe Indigenous Cultural Association. Térraba.  Elon Univeristy, 2013.  Web. 3 Feb. 2014.]. In 2004, however, the territory was fragmented into blocks without notice [14. Teribe Indigenous Cultural Association. Térraba.  Elon Univeristy, 2013.  Web. 3 Feb. 2014.]. This action disregarded laws that are intended to protect indigenous people.  The tribe, with the help from the United Nations, successfully filed a lawsuit [15. Teribe Indigenous Cultural Association. Térraba.  Elon Univeristy, 2013.  Web. 3 Feb. 2014.]. From this clip, we can see how the water means has not just a domestic and drinking use, but also has a spiritual meaning. The video illuminates how the lower class people are often the ones who have to pay the costs when dealing with water management. In this case, it also shows that prior appropriation of the water does not always mean you get to keep the decision making power.



The Pirris Dam


          Costa Rica has continued to develop large hydroelectric dams in an attempt to use almost all clean energy. One of their largest projects was the construction of the Pirris dam which was put into use on September 14th 2011. This monster dam, in Los Santos region, south of San José, is 113 meters and can generate 134 MW of electricity and can provide to 160,000 homes.  The dam has a capacity to process 30 million cubic meters of water through two large turbines. Not only did it employ thousands during the construction but after the construction it employs 3000 people from Costa Rica. [16. “Costa Rica Inaugurates Pirris Dam amid Protests.” Tico Times 14 Sept. 2011: n. pag. Print.]


The Pirris Dam

          The Pirris dam was not such a smooth build, many economic and social issues arose. In all, the construction of the mega dam took 10 years. It had even larger challenges with affordability, costing 627 million dollars, which required investment from other investors. First from Costa Rica’s own Electricity Institute (ICE), but also from others around the world, including the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration. Many Costa Rican’s protested the dam on inauguration day, the brough signs saying, “Families left without homes,” “Ecological impact studies are needed,” and “We want our homes back.” The dam was put up anyway and continues to operate [17. “Costa Rica Inaugurates Pirrís Dam amid Protests.” Tico Times 14 Sept. 2011: n. pag. Print.].



Testing the Pirris Dam


          Despite local concerns about the Pirris Hydroelectric dam, it also brings many opportunities to the industrializing Costa Rica. Laura Chinchilla, first female president of Costa Rica says. “Not only does it drive production costs, but also the cost of living for the country” [19. “Costa Rica Inaugurates Pirrís Dam amid Protests.” Tico Times 14 Sept. 2011: n. pag. Print.]. The main purpose of constructing Pirris is a bold move to try and get Costa Rica as first nation to have all of its power supply, based completely on clean and renewable energy. Costa Rica has other clean energy sources but hydroelectric dams is the foundation of their renewable energy and continues to help them move in the right direction [18. Mack, Steve. “A Renewable Power Generation Primer.” The Tico Times.  6 Sept. 2012.  Web. Feb 2014.].


new dam

Costa Rica

          With a reputation of producing 82% of the it’s energy from hydroelectric plants and dams, Costa Rica is set to build the largest hydro-electric plant in Central America by 2018.1 The project will be on the Reventazón River, and is estimated to cost about one billion dollars. Although this dam will supply Costa Rica with a substantial amount of power, there are a lot of  potential environmental issues. The banks of the river are home to many wildlife species who will be forced to adapt to the changing water levels. Considering the cost and possible environmental issues, this project is an example of how business and politics can control rivers [19. Costa Rica set to build largest hydro-electric project in Central America by 2018. Liquarterly. Web. Feb 21. 2014.].


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