Hidroituango Dam Failure in Central Colombia Forces Evacuation of Thousands and Leaves Downriver Communities at Risk of Devastation
The failure of a massive, under-construction hydroelectric dam in Colombia has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, with the grave situation growing more precarious by the day as a larger structure collapse could lead to the devastation of surrounding towns.
The situation began when, according to local public utility and dam operator Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), a landslide blocked a tunnel that had been safely diverting the waterway during the construction phase of the project, which was nearing completion after years of work and slated to go online in 2018.
Photo: Disaster risks management officials meet with people forced from their homes at a local evacuation shelter. (Credit: National Unit for Disaster Risk Management)
Combined with heavy rains of late that have swelled the Cauca River, the blockage caused water to build up behind the Hidroituango dam structure and left officials at the company and throughout the country fearing the scope of the damage to come if the situation continued to deteriorate.
With water levels rising, EPM made the decision to flood the site’s engine house where the machinery and turbines that would generate electricity are stored. This caused water levels to rise further down river but has also not fully resolved the buildup that could cause a larger rupture in the structure.
Evacuation orders for around 8,000 people have been issued by the governmental National Unit for Disaster Risk Management and local officials in recent days for several municipalities downriver that would face life-threatening catastrophe if the dam fails further. More than 50 indigenous families living on an island in the Cauca River were among those forced to evacuate.
Many evacuees spent the weekend in tent shelters sleeping on thin foam mattresses atop cement floors after being transported to surrounding areas deemed far enough from the river to be safe. Complaints were widespread in the local media about the poor condition of the locations where they are being housed.
Tens of thousands of other people who live further downriver from the dam have been put on alert and could be forced to flee in a worst-case scenario.
In addition to the forced evacuations, the resulting rise in water levels has already destroyed or damaged several dozen homes, buildings, and infrastructure sites, including schools, at least one health center, and two bridges, according to a report by the Guardian.
Searching for Solutions – and Answers
EPM is continuing to work to resolve the crisis through construction work that is elevating a portion of the dam. The company has set a level of 410 meters as a safer level where water can be diverted more with better control.
Some 1,500 workers are working “24/7″ at the site, said the company.
Thus far, the situation remains dire, but the reservoir level has decreased and the speed of the water flowing through the at-risk area has slowed, according to EPM.
Other experts from agencies including the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD), Colombian Ministry of Mines, Red Cross, military, and National Police have also been lending support to help resolve the situation.
At least four workers have been injured while attending to the dam, according to EPM.
The national government has been aiding the company along the way, but Minister of Mines German Arce has stressed that “EPM is responsible for the project and will have to give all the explanations of what happened and how it will manage the project forward.”
President Juan Manuel Santos has called for a thorough investigation into the cause of the crisis.
Building the Hidroituango Dam
The enormous Hidroituango dam — a project with a price tag listed as upward of $5 billion USD — was designed to generate 2400 megawatts of electricity and would be the largest ever built in Colombia.
It was the flagship, and nearly completed, construction project of EPM, a utility in Medellín that provides natural gas and water services across the region in addition to power generation.
Colombia already generates the majority of its electricity demand through hydropower and this single project was said to be capable of adding more than 15% to the national grid.
From the outset, the project faced major opposition from several environmental groups and other stakeholders.
Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez said last week that a full collapse of the Hidroituango dam would send an “avalanche” of water downriver at such speeds that it would cause catastrophic flooding in under an hour in Puerto Valdivia, which now sits as a ghost town after the mandatory evacuations.
The towns of Cáceres would be hit by the unstoppable deluge in five hours while it would reach Caucasia in 10 hours and Nechí in 18 hours, stated the mayor.
EPM has said in a statement that everyone in Puerto Valdivia, Puerto Antioquia, Cáceres, and Taraz should now be evacuated.
An “orange alert” has been issued for Nechí and Caucasia, where citizens can remain in place but should be ready to evacuate if the situation grows worse.
A “yellow alert” has been put out to towns even further away including those in other departments. The full list includes: San Jacinto del Cauca, Achí, Magangué, Guaranda, San Marcos, Majagual, Caimito, Sucre, and Ayapel.