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Brazil’s Balbina Dam destroying Amazon wildlife

Brazil’s world famous wildlife under threat

brazil's balbina dam destroying amazon wildlifeBrazil, the largest country in South America is like a tropical paradise for tourists. People travel there not just for its beautiful beaches, vibrant cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, and the Carnival, but also to enjoy the spectacular beauty of the wildlife-rich tropical rainforests and the Amazon basin.

The Amazon rainforest in South America is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and around 60% of it lies in Brazil. Home to around 55000 species of plants, around 3000 types of freshwater fish, and hundreds of varieties of birds, mammals, and reptiles, Brazil is considered to be the country with the most biodiversity on planet Earth.

Well, now the huge Balbina Dam – a hydroelectric dam and power station – built on the Uatumã River in the centre of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest region in the 1980s is proving to be a threat to the country’s famed wildlife. According to scientific researchers, may species of mammals, birds, and tortoises here have become extinct already and many more are on the way to being wiped out.

The worst hydroelectric power plant in the world

Like many other developing countries, Brazil gets most of its electricity from hydropower and has plans to build scores of new such dams to meet the country’s demand for electricity. Being considered ‘green’ because of the re-use of water, hydropower is used the most for producing electricity across the world as compared to the combined use of all the other renewable energy sources. But, interestingly, the massive Balbina Dam has come to be known as ‘the worst hydroelectric power plant in the world’.

Generally, hydroelectric plants built on lowlands need very large dams to raise the water to high enough levels to cause it to cascade with force. Such dams produce a low output of electricity per acre of flooded land. In contrast, plants built higher up on mountains from where the river waters run down steep slopes need smaller dams, and produce comparatively more electricity. Large dams built on flat land like the Balbina Dam are also considered to release more greenhouse gases including methane than even the most inefficient coal power plants. The construction of such dams also results in a greater loss of trees, thus further increasing the environmental cost.

brazil, amazon wildlifeIn the case of the Balbina Dam, it has also transformed the once continuous stretch of rainforest into an artificial archipelago of around 3500 small islands. A recently published study from the University of East Anglia in England has revealed that many vertebrates have been wiped out from these islands.

 

According to Carlos Peres, a professor at this university who has co-authored the study, and the other researchers, the extinction rates are ‘astounding’.

When we think of Brazil, we think of blue and gold macaws, capuchin monkeys, tree frogs, iguanas, giant anteaters… Unless steps are taken in time, more of the country’s colourful and enchanting creatures could disappear right in front of our eyes. In that case, the loss will not only be that of Brazil, but of the world.

By Veena Patwardhan

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