In Georgia, protests against dams precede development bank meetings
Protests have in recent weeks broken out across rural Georgia after construction resumed on several large dam projects. At the sites of the Shuakhevi, Nenskra and the Dariali hydropower plants, demonstrators have complained that the projects were decided behind closed doors, and that poor assessments of the social and environmental consequences mean their livelihoods are under threat.
Police were called in to oversee some of the protests, with villagers blocking access roads to construction sites, carrying banners and calling on national authorities and international financiers to put an end to the works.
The international financial institutions supporting the three hydropower plants have yet to respond to the protests. Two of these – the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – are set to host their annual meetings next month, where shareholders meet to discuss the operations of the institutions.
A country of nearly four million, Georgia has awarded more than 100 concessions for new hydropower projects. Environmental and transparency groups have argued that the hydropower boom is happening without any strategic plan in place and is a breeding ground for corruption and environmental damage.
The ADB and EBRD annual meetings are an opportunity to debate how best to prevent the escalation of the situation in Georgia and how to engage responsibly in development of the country’s energy sector. Long overdue by now, a critical stance by the international financiers towards hydropower could help to shape a coherent programme for change in Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
On 18 April, residents in the hamlet of Chuberi addressed national authorities and international financiers with a collective letter signed by 400 residents demanding an end to preparatory works for the 280 megawatt Nenskra dam, until all project alternatives and geological risks are properly assessed, and an open public debate takes place. On 26 April, in response to the lack of official reaction to their letter, the Chuberis blocked the access road and prevented the construction vehicles from entering the village. As a result preparatory works were put on hold.
A few days prior, on 23 April, the villagers of Nakra, another area potentially affected by the Nenskra dam, demonstrated against the plant’s impact on the valley’s ecosystems. On previous occasions, they had expressed despair over heightened geological risks, as repeatedly mudflows damaged the village.
In March the village of Tsdo on the Tergi river woke to construction on a 220KV transmission line connecting the 109 megawatt Dariali hydropower project with a planned substation near the town of Stepantsminda. The new line will run 100 metres from the existing 110 KV transmission line, which does not have the capacity to transfer the power produced at Dariali.
Even though the lines will cross village lands and agriculture plots, locals were excluded from the decision-making process. Georgian legislation allows for public consultations to be bypassed on projects of ‘national interest’. While the line will transmit power mainly from Dariali and two other hydropower plants, the assessment of the Dariali project did not include the construction of the greenfield line.
On 20 April residents of Tsdo held a protest in front of the Kazbegi town hall, demanding that construction be suspended. While the deputy Energy Minister assured protestors that the electricity posts would be installed at the outskirts of the village, locals claim that the installation falls within the village boundaries and crosses farmlands.
Tsdo residents propose an alternative route to pass along the river Tergi. But the limited space in the narrow river gorge is already reserved for a planned 500KV transmission line to connect Russia with Armenia and turn Georgia into an electricity hub.
The 500KV line is another flashpoint, as its routing cuts through farmland in the Sno valley and potentially settlements at the end of the valley. The villages of Karkucha and Akhaltsikhe will potentially be impacted by the project, but the government has decided not to consult them.
On 22 April, a protest broke out in Karkucha, demanding that the route of the transmission line be moved. People warned the Ministry of Energy that they would not let that line to cross their village and move out.
Since the project was announced, local communities have argued that the project’s area of impact is larger than the site itself, including villages prone to damages from construction works and later during operation. When the drilling works on a tunnel commenced in October 2014, residents in Chanchkhalo noticed cracks in their houses, and later documented landslides and changes in the terrain triggered by works on the tunnel.
When the villagers sought compensation for the damages from the Norwegian project operator, the company denied a link between the blasts and erosion. Since then, these impacts have been the subject of multiple protests and complaints, with people arguing that the company did not properly estimate the true hazards associated with the plant.
On 22 March, protests broke out in villages of the Khulo municipality. People called for a halt to construction until detailed geological studies by independent experts are done, and the impacts to houses and farmland in the villages outside the official project area are evaluated and a compensation plan is agreed.
On 20 April, in response to a lack of official reaction to their complaints about the works on Shuakhevi, the residents of Makhalakidzeebi blocked access roads to the construction site. As a result, the blast works in the drilling tunnel stopped. Beside the cracks in the house walls, people complained that the local water spring disappeared. Villagers have said that they would bring their protests to the administration of the Adjara Autonomous Republic in Batumi.