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WWF report on dams misrepresents the Kárahnjúkar Project

November 16, 2005

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WWF's Report: Do dam or not to dam?
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has published a report evaluating developments since the World Commission on Dams issued its report on dams, their benefits and impacts, in the year 2000. In their report, WWF rightfully warn that dams and resulting reservoirs can damage ecosystems and cause negative economic and social impacts. In their 16 page report they conduct six one page case studies of dams being constructed world wide after the publishing of the Commission’s report. One of these case studies (p. 8 in the WWF report) is Landsvirkjun’s Kárahnjúkar Project in the northeast of Iceland.

The number of factual mistakes made in WWF's study of Kárahnjúkar is a cause for concern to those well acquainted with the project. This also puts in question the quality of WWF's report. It is surely in WWF's interest to correct factual mistakes in its reports and press releases to prevent compromising its good cause.

The following points are examples of WWF’s misrepresentations of the Kárahnjúkar project:

WWF reports: “The project has caused both local and international controversy, with concerns about the environmental impacts of such a large project in a fragile and pristine arctic wilderness area. More specifically, the project will flood five hundred nesting sites of the rare pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) and Iceland’s only reindeer herd is likely to diminish. Wetlands downstream will also be affected by wind erosion of soils left exposed from construction, the draining of watersheds and the fluctuations of the water level in the reservoir.”

  • As a matter of fact, the pink-footed geese are by no means rare, since the size of the pink-footed goose stock has been at an historical high in the last few years, having grown in numbers from 30 thousand in 1950 to around 230 thousand individuals in autumn. The Natural History Institute of Iceland has pointed out that research shows that the 500 nesting sites in question are not traditional sites of the species and that their loss will not result in any measurable effect on the size of the stock.
  • Reindeer are 3000 to 4000 in number in Iceland and they are divided into numerous herds - not a single one. About one third of the stock resides in the highland area of the Kárahnjúkar region. The size of the stock is regulated through hunting which is important in order to prevent damage to vegetation and to ensure enough feed for the animals. No research has indicated that the reservoir is likely to endanger the reindeer in Iceland.
  • Research has not shown any likelihood of wetlands being damaged for the reasons stated in the WWF report. Construction sites use gravel etc. from the reservoir bed so that fears related to “soils exposed from construction” do not apply. Vegetation in flat areas downstream along the riverbank is actually likely to increase. Concerns due to wind erosion relate to vegetated coastal areas in the reservoir. A comprehensive plan for mitigation measures has been approved.

WWF reports: “The project’s EIA was at first rejected by Iceland’s National Planning Agency, a decision that was later overruled by the Minister for the Environment. The project remains a divisive issue within Iceland and three Icelandic citizens and the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association took the Minister for the Environment to court for overturning the Agency’s decision on the project’s EIA.”

  • Why does the report note this and leave out that the Supreme Court of Iceland ruled that the Minister’s decision had been lawful and in conformity with the law on environmental impact assessment? Furthermore, the project was approved by Parliament with only 9 opposing votes, with the largest opposition party joining the Government in supporting the project.

WWF reports: “A coalition of NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations), including WWF, has brought the Kárahnjúkar case to the attention of the Bern Convention Standing Committee, which in 2004 issued a set of recommendations regarding mitigation measures for the project to the Icelandic Government. According to the NGO coalition, most of the key recommendations remain to be implemented.”

  • Icelandic authorities are implementing the recommendations in question according to Dr. Jón Gunnar Ottósson, Director of the Natural History Institute of Iceland and Iceland's representative in the Bern Convention Standing Committee. Furthermore, these recommendations do not entail any measures that modify or otherwise change the construction of the Kárahnjúkar Project.

WWF reports: “The economics and social impacts of the project have been, and continue to be questioned. A 2005 OECD report suggested that Iceland’s large-scale aluminium-related investment projects might result in the overheating of the economy.”

  • The danger of overheating the economy was well known in advance but most economists agree that the effect of the project has been less than expected for various reasons and it is actually overshadowed by unrelated events connected with a general economic boom in Iceland.

WWF reports: “While the environmental shortcomings of the project remain, one positive development has been the Icelandic government’s proposal of a new national park – potentially the largest in Europe – which will protect Jökulsá á Fjöllum, an adjacent watershed. After the construction of Kárahnjúkar this will be the last free flowing glacial river in the Icelandic highlands.”

  • In actual fact, after Kárahnjúkar only three of the main glacial river systems in Iceland will have been harnessed. Free flowing major glacial rivers in the highlands will still be numerous and smaller free flowing glacial rivers in the highlands, as well as major ones outside the highlands, will be legion.

The above quotes from WWF's report constitute most of what is said in the case study of Kárahnjúkar and, as can be seen, all of it involves fundamental factual mistakes or omissions. It is impossible to see how these considerations can substantiate WWF’s conclusion that the Kárahnjúkar project fails to observe 2 out of 7 strategic priorities that the World Commission on Dams puts forward. We urge WWF to correct the misrepresentation of the Kárahnjúkar project in their report, on their website and in their communication with the media. Their cause for a better environment and society deserves better field work than the misrepresentations evident in their study of the Kárahnjúkar project.

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