Why hydroelectric power is not the solution in Georgia

Georgia’s government propaganda machine has been working tirelessly in the past few months to justify a controversial new hydroelectric power plant.

The Namakhvani project is a big deal for a country that relies heavily on foreign investment, with proposed investment valued at up to $800m, and a Turkish investor. The government’s argument is that the Namakhvani hydroelectric power plant (HPP) will bolster the country’s energy independence and security, and provide vital investment for an economy that is struggling from the global coronavirus pandemic.

But trying to justify the scheme, which involves building a vast dam in the Rioni Valley in the west of the country, also means denying the scale of environmental and economic damage the project will inflict.

Thousands of people have protested against this new dam, showing that popular feeling is much stronger than Georgia’s long experiment in social engineering. It is an honest protest by people who are tired of 30 years of unbridled privatisation and deregulation, and who always end up losers under government policies to attract outside investors.

Indeed, Georgians have been protesting against new dams for the country’s rivers since the 1980s. After the 2003 Rose Revolution, the newly elected United National Movement government renewed Soviet-era dam construction, despite opposition. In 2012, when the Georgian Dream coalition came to power, public attitudes towards dams remained unchanged.

This popular scepticism has its roots in reality. In 2014, the newly constructed Larsi Dam was damaged by a series of mudslides, killing more than ten people. Then in 2017, part of Shuakhevi Dam collapsed two months after its construction, resulting in 200m Georgian lari ($60m) in damages. In both cases, the government did not heed warnings by environmental groups.

Nobody denies that new energy sources are needed for economic development, but two questions keep coming back: what kind of economy is Georgia building and at what price? And who are the winners?

Sites at risk

The Namakhvani HPP refers to two ‘cascade’ dams: the Tvishi Dam (100 megawatts capacity) and the Namakhvani-Joneti Dam (333 MW). The project is currently at the preparatory stage, and envisages the creation of a 610-hectare reservoir, though the area flooded will be much greater – a large part of the forest that covers the surrounding hills will end up underwater.

Several cultural and natural heritage sites are also at risk, including the unique microclimates of Tvishi, a noted wine region, and a special variety of sturgeon. People living in the valley may be forced to leave their homes as a result of future geological or environmental events. Geological and seismic risks accompany projects of this scale, and the unpredictable nature of climate change on rainfall undermines any new dam projects.

In addition, there is concern about the unconditional transfer of land, water and other natural resources on a 99-year lease to the plant’s operating company.

No one is denying the environmental damage that will be caused by the dam. But the Georgian government, and the dam’s proponents, offer several arguments to support the project: energy independence; cheap domestic supply to meet the increasing consumption of energy; and $800m foreign investment during the pandemic.

First, let’s deal with energy independence. Annual energy consumption in Georgia amounts to around 60 billion kWh, and more than 80% of the country’s energy is imported, mostly from Azerbaijan and Russia. It cannot make up the shortfall between imported electricity and imported fossil fuels and domestic production via hydropower. Which means that even if we completely cement over all of Georgia’s rivers, the country will still not be able to achieve energy independence without our own oil and gas.

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Beka Natsvlishvili | Radio Free (2021-12-04T19:19:05+00:00) » Why hydroelectric power is not the solution in Georgia. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2021/03/24/why-hydroelectric-power-is-not-the-solution-in-georgia/.
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» Why hydroelectric power is not the solution in Georgia | Beka Natsvlishvili | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2021/03/24/why-hydroelectric-power-is-not-the-solution-in-georgia/ | 2021-12-04T19:19:05+00:00
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