Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Iceland : Dam Nation

Merrick, 1st August 2005ce

With the growing awareness of climate change, carbon emission restrictions may not be to far off. Because countries that pollute the most may well get the heaviest restrictions, rather than seeking to reduce their emissions many industrial corporations are looking to move operations abroad.

Iceland, despite modern European levels of education, welfare and wealth, has almost no heavy industry. Their carbon rations will be up for grabs. Seeing the extra pollution coming, Iceland got a 10% increase on their CO2 limits under the Kyoto treaty.

The problem is that the lack of heavy industry means a lack of the major power supply needed for such things. But Iceland has glacial rivers in vast areas unpopulated by humans; land for hydroelectric dams that can be seen as carbon-neutral.

So Alcoa, the world’s largest aluminium company, approached the Icelandic government with a view to building an enormous aluminium smelter there, and the government readily agreed.

Alcoa proposed the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project. In the east of the country on one of the largest pristine wild landscapes left in Europe, they are to build a colossal project of dams, pipelines, and tunnels, diverting two of Iceland’s largest glacial rivers and a dozen other clear-water rivers into a reservoir.

At 190m high and 730m wide, Kárahnjúkar will be the tallest rock-and-gravel dam in Europe. Together with two smaller dams, it will create the Hálslón reservoir, submerging 57 sq km of glacial river valley in the process.

It’s not just the submerged land that will be obliterated, but the land beyond the dam will be deprived of its water. This is intact wilderness, the oldest surviving areas of Iceland’s original vegetation. Around 380 square miles will be directly affected, with a far larger area secondarily impacted.

And that’s before we mention the pollution the smelter will put into the air, the groundwater and pump out to sea.

Silting of the dams will start as soon as the reservoir is filled. Collected there, when the water level seasonally falls the exposed silt will dry out. The strong winds in the area will carry substantial quantities of dust over great distances, damaging the delicate plantlife and in turn the fauna that feed on it.

That silt would otherwise have flowed down to the Herardsfloi delta as it does today, forming banks that are home to a sizeable seal population and a moulting ground for geese. Instead, these banks will erode and take the habitat away.

Over several centuries, the dams will silt up completely, becoming full and unusable within 400 years.

The mix of latitude and geothermal activity makes Iceland an ecologically unique place. Glaciers and volcanoes on the same land. Whilst most of the seismic activity is west of the dam site, the prospect of a large seismic event rupturing the dam cannot be discounted.

The government has issued carefully worded statements saying that the risks are very small on the basis of known data. The amount of known data has been made deliberately small; a nearby volcano has had no hazard evaluation done on it, and the only good reason to be deduced is that the government don’t want the wrong answer.

It’s an opinion held by those who know most about the subject. Former director of the Nordic Volcanological Institute Guðmundur E Sigvaldason has criticised the government’s wilful paucity of information, adding, ‘The observed heavy fracturing of the crust at the dam site combined with ongoing crustal deformation due to fluctuations in glacier loading is a serious matter of concern for the proposed project’.

Aside of the dangers and environmental loss, the Icelandic people get none of the power generated, it will be solely for the use of the Alcoa aluminium smelter.

Such a scheme is so obviously crazy that it was rejected by the Iceland Planning Agency in August 2001, citing ‘substantial, irreversible negative environmental impact’.

Iceland has a population of under 300,000 - around the same as Bradford or Cardiff – and with barely 60 MPs making up the parliament it’s not difficult for vested interests to hold power and correspondingly corrupt decisions to be made.

The appeal against the project’s rejection went to the Environment Minister, Siv Fridleifsdottir, who duly overturned it for no good reason in December 2001. The smelter is on. Construction has already started. Hillsides are already being blown up.

Alcoa claims the new smelter will be super-green. Funny, then, that they got the Environment Ministry to give them permission to emit 12kg of sulphur dioxide (SO2) per tonne of aluminium produced, when the World Bank says 1kg is reasonable for a modern smelter.

When a minerals firm refers to a desire to ‘play a sustainable role’ – as Alcoa’s Hrönn Pétursdóttir does – you know you’re being greenwashed.

The area of the Kárahnjúkar project is not a popular tourist destination. Indeed, there are no roads on much of it, and Alcoa have said the dam project could provide access roads for a possible national park (carefully mapped to avoid the area Alcoa want to use). It’s precisely this absence of humanity that gives the area its enormous ecological value. The tourism touted by Alcoa and the Icelandic government as mitigation is actually a furthering of the damage humans will inflict on the area. We have to learn to stop valuing the natural world in terms of its usefulness to humans.

But at least national park status would protect land from future industrialisation, right? There is no reason to think so. The Kárahnjúkar project will submerge about a third of the Kringilsarrani environmentally protected area. Environment Minister Fridleifsdottir has justified it by explaining that ‘protected’ did not mean ‘for ever protected’.

What is the meaning of environmental protection if it is only protected until wanted by an American industrial corporation?

Alcoa and the Icelandic government claim the impact on ecosystems won’t be so great. When faced with the fact that they’re affecting reindeer calving grounds, they suggest that perhaps the reindeer will find somewhere else. Part of the solution they’re implementing is a cull of a third of the reindeer in order to offset the problems of reduced feeding areas.

Any talk from Alcoa about the environmental soundness of their plans is exposed as guff when you consider that the same money put into aluminium recycling would mean the same output and far greater emission reductions. The only difference comes in less profitability.

They see possible fossil-fuel rationing or taxing in the pipeline, so they’re just moving to where the electricity is cheaper. It’s nothing to do with environmental concerns at all.

CO2 is only a bit player here. Aluminium smelting produces serious quantities of tetra-fluoromethane and hexa-fluoromethane which are literally thousands of times more powerful in producing the greenhouse effect.

We need to be finding ways to scale back our consumption, not just move it around the world. The climate doesn’t give a damn where we emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases, only that we do it at all. Even if we find power supplies that use less fossil fuel, we are still burning, polluting, transporting. Industrialisation itself needs to be scaled back.

This should be clearer in Iceland than anywhere else, which already shows dramatic evidence of climate change. Glaciers are in retreat, and at the present rate will be completely gone within 300 years.

Italian construction company Impregilo won the contract to build the dams, primarily on the grounds that they made the cheapest offer, the only bidder to bid below the consultant’s estimate. That fact in itself speaks volumes about any mitigation of environmental damage they might splash out on.

Impregilo was a contractor on the Yacyreta dam in Argentina. That project cost billions more than had been planned, in no small part due to financial corruption. Impregilo was also part of the consortium that would have built the notorious Ilusu Dam in Turkey before that was stopped by a concerted global campaign. In Iceland, Impregilo have subsequently had over a thousand exemptions written into their contract to avoid a vast range of liabilities.

The Icelandic government and their power company Landsvirkjun have engaged in a sustained publicity campaign for the projects, not just in terms of promoting it but also in smearing those who oppose it.

Environmental consultant Dr Ragnhildur Sigurdarsdottir was commissioned to write a on the Thjorsa hydropower project. ‘I was asked to falsify my report to justify the larger-scale power plans Landsvirkjun wanted,' she said. 'When I refused, it was altered anyway.’ When she made this public, all other jobs she had lined up were cancelled.

Landsvirkjun’s managing director Fridrik Sophusson dismisses Sigurdarsdottir’s allegations with the curiously uncontradictory word ‘unsubstantiated’.

Even if the smelter were to be built, it could be powered by a smaller dam and geothermal energy. But Siggurdur Arnalds, the project’s PR man, says that making the dam any smaller would be ‘a waste of our national resources’.

The Icelandic government has underwritten the loans for the project, and so Barclays arranged the final $400m loan required by Landsvirkjun in July 2003. This happened despite the fact that a month earlier Barclays had signed up to ‘Equator Principles’ which were to guarantee ‘sound environmental management practices as a financing prerequisite’.

In a globalised freemarket, the prices on which the whole project was calculated will change. The profits envisioned depend upon a consistently high price for aluminium. If it falls, it’s the Icelandic taxpayer who’ll get the bill, effectively paying for the destruction of their own country.

The smelter will create about 600 jobs. Not a lot and, in a country with only 3% unemployment, hardly something that’s desperately needed. It will, however, be a major exporter, it will generate some income for those with a stake. Many of those will be Alcoa’s employees abroad. As with most foreign investment, it will act to siphon money away more than bring it in.

Furthermore, the aluminium will be exported unworked; this means the real money will be made elsewhere. The use of it, the bit that adds value, will happen abroad. Iceland will be the equivalent of underpaid cocoa farmers, suppliers of essential raw material but the money is made by the rich-nation chocolate companies that turn it into finished products. The profits will go home to Alcoa’s American boardroom.

This is about the Icelandic government’s image, the desire to be seen as a world player and using the hydroelectric potential as the springboard. The only real benefits for anyone will be in the form of corporate profits. It’s no more than a way for the rich to become richer at the expense of the environment.

There is depopulation occurring in the eastern highlands, but a smelter is not going to change that. Iceland’s low unemployment and enormous middle class (some 80% of the population) mean that such jobs are not going to appeal. The two smelters already working in Iceland are staffed using a lot of foreign labour. Likewise, the construction work on the project is being undertaken with the use of foreign workers.

The Kárahnjúkar project divides the Icelandic population, with about half in favour and half against. The issue is arousing passions and garnering attention like no other.

Campaigning group Saving Iceland has worked on many fronts, and this summer has been running SOS Iceland, a camp on land due to be drowned, where protests are planned and co-ordinated. Activists from all over Europe have been visiting, many passing on skills learned on previous protests elsewhere. On 19th July, the first political blocade in Iceland’s history took place. Vehicles going to work at the dam were locked on to and work on the dam was halted. The police had to make up a word for ‘lock-on’ on the spot!

The camp issued a press statement:

From the Narmada Dams in India to the proposed Ilisu Dam in Turkey, the story is one of big business and oppressive government. The struggle to save our planet, like the struggle against inhumanity, is global, so we have to be too. We’re here to prevent the Kárahnjúkar Dam project from destroying Western Europe’s last great wilderness.

The industrialisation of Iceland’s natural resources will not only devastate vast landscapes of great natural beauty and scientific importance, but impair species such as reindeer, seals and fish, and the already endangered pink-footed goose and several other bird species. Through this mindless vandalism against nature, the Icelandic tourist industry will also be affected and the health and quality of life of the Icelandic people.

This industrialisation will bring pollution such as Iceland has not seen before. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen, and many other chemicals used to process aluminium, are all products of the unnecessary and short-sighted profit-driven environmental barbarism of the aluminium industry. Under the burden of Kárahnjúkar, only one of many dams planned, rivers will choke, and people will choke.

If this dam goes ahead, it will pave the way for similar dams of glacial rivers all over the Icelandic highlands; Thjórsárver (protected by the international treaty of Ramsar), Langisjór (one of Europe´s most beautiful lakes), the rivers in the Skagafjördur region and Skjálfandafljót. All just to generate energy for aluminium corporations. If this will be allowed to happen Iceland will face the same sad fate as other global communities, which have suffered under similar projects.


The camp has cost a lot of money to put on, and many activists have run up debts for it. Donations can be made online at the Saving Iceland website.

There is still a lot to play for. Despite the damage of construction, the major impact will be when the waters are diverted and dammed. Until that point, there is a lot of reason to protest.

Also, as the SOS Iceland statement says, there are plans in the pipeline for more industrial damming projects in Iceland. If this one proves too be too costly, financially and/or politically, then others will not go ahead.

Icelandic concern for the opinions of foreigners has a large part to play here. Aside from appeals to sense, to have concerns other than short term financial gains for the very rich, there is a way to appeal to those who do only care about money. Tourism is Iceland’s second biggest industry, and it’s largely based on that eco-angle; the geological weirdness, the unspoiltness. To build the dams is to tarnish that image and so have a detrimental effect on an industry far more important to Iceland than aluminium.

If those further dams are stopped then there’s a broader global knock-on push against such schemes. Whereas if the dams go ahead, there’s gathering momentum to keep on with our overconsuming ecocidal ways, merely changing the source of our energy.

Outside pressure is starting to show. Environment Minister Fridleifsdottir has started to refuse interviews with foreign media. It seems that, as a physiotherapist with no qualification or experience in environmental concerns, she fears well-informed questions.

The 10th World Aluminium Conference was held in Reykjavik in June. During a seminar with the oxymoronic title 'An Approach to Sustainability For A Greenfield Aluminium Smelter', activists showered bigwigs from the Kárahnjúkar project with green skyr (a sort of Icelandic runny yogurt) to symbolically throw their greenwash back at them. This marks a new turn in Icelandic politics, as direct action has been previously unknown.

Also in June, the Icelandic High Court ruled that the construction of the Alcoa factory was in breach of Icelandic law without an Environmental Impact Assessment. But a government is a hefty thing to turn around. Construction goes ahead unabated.

Icelandic writer Gudbergur Bergsson says of his compatriots, ‘What they perceive as 'in' right now is globalisation, so they want to be part of that. If the international community can show them how truly ridiculous it is to destroy nature, the very thing they love most, for one aluminium smelter, they may start to think for themselves. They might finally have the guts to speak up and tell their dictatorial government how absolutely they have got this wrong. You have to shame us into change.’





Saving Iceland
Icelandic and foreign activists opposed to the dam - if you want to donate money, these are the people to give it to.

Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands (Iceland Nature Conservation Association)
NGO whose main current campaign is against the dam

Damned Nation
Excellent eyewitness article by Mark Lynas

Protests have taken place at Icelandic embassies. People have also written to their Icelandic ambassador. You can do it too!
For the UK;
2A Hans Street, London SW1X 0JE
020-7259-3999.
icemb.london@utn.stjr.is

For the USA;
1156 15th Street NW, Suite 1200, Washington DC 20005-1704
(202) 265 6653
icemb.wash@utn.stjr.is

More contact info for these and other Icelandic embassies can be found here





Incidentally, if you’re wondering why you’ve not heard about this before, it isn’t only because of Iceland’s remote location. There has been a peculiar silence from Greenpeace. Whilst WWF and Friends of the Earth have made representations, Greenpeace have said nothing.

Clearly, Greenpeace cannot be unaware of the Kárahnjúkar project. It’s just that they are busy ‘offering to help the government promote nature tourism as an alternative to whaling’. They have a pledge to sign where you say you’ll visit Iceland if whaling stops. So they encourage the pollution from tourists flying to Iceland and sweep all other concerns, even one as mighty as Kárahnjúkar, under the carpet.

A September 2003 visit to Iceland by the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior met with American diplomats, but didn’t mention the dam and smelter being built for an American company. They tell their members that the only ecological concern in Iceland is the slaughter of 500 whales. The colossal unnecessary destruction of unique habitat and monstrous pollution is ignored as inconvenient.

Aside of lying by omission, they have lied outright too. Frode Pleym, one of the Rainbow Warrior crew on that mission, said, ‘Iceland is actually a model nation environmentally in many respects, and a strong ally to Greenpeace internationally on several issues - from ocean pollution to fisheries management to climate change - that whaling needs to be seen as the anomaly it is.’

Greenpeace members are being deliberately kept away from an important environmental issue that they have the power to affect. I suspect a majority of Greenpeace members – especially those who’ve been convinced to sign the pledge - would be shocked to find this out, rightly feeling deceived and betrayed.

Just like the way the National Trust reneged on its ‘for ever for everyone’ motto by doing swaps with the government for land on the Newbury Bypass, so with Greenpeace’s silence over the Icelandic dams we see those who act in our name prove themselves unworthy.

If ever there was an example of why we shouldn’t use the unwieldy corporate behemoth scale of working; why trusting others to do your political work for you is a last resort; why we shouldn’t get dragged into compromise with the ecocidal forces that run the world; this surely is it.