The Dams Debate in Sweden.
Lars Lövgren, The River Savers Association
Today most of the larger rivers and streams in Sweden are protected by law against exploitation for hydro power production. This has been the case for the last seven years. I will shortly describe the dams debate in Sweden and the long and winding road that has led us to the present situation.
Roughly half of the electricity produced in Sweden today is produced by hydro power and the other half by nuclear power. Some electricity is also generated in the industry and in heating plants. In total, electricity stands for one third of the total energy supply. Thus, the rivers contribute with approximately one sixth of the total energy supply in Sweden. In terms of the energy production potential, 70 per cent of the swedish rivers are exploited.
The large scale construction of hydro power plants started during the 1890s, although the big boom in the exploitation of the rivers came after the Second World War. At the beginning, the sites closest to specific energy-consuming industries were chosen.
The first big plant in the Northern mountain area, Porjus, was finished in 1914. Porjus was mainly intended to supply the railway with which iron ore was transported from the mines in Lappland to Narvik, Norway. This plant was built by the recently founded Vattenfallsverket (today Vattenfall or "Waterfall"), the state owned hydro power authority. Just a few years later a large storage reservoir was constructed upstream Porjus at Stora Sjöfallet (or "The Great Waterfall). This area had been declared as a national park a few years earlier, in 1909. Already at that time some objections could be heard.
During the 1950s an increasing opposition to hydro power exploitation could be noticed. Those who had raised their voices so far belonged to the elite - a handful of scientists, top lawyers and some others with prominent positions in the society. The arguments they put forward in the debate were mainly aesthetic. It was particularly streams at the most beautiful sites in the mountains of Lappland that had been in focus. During this period the opposition against new dams started to be organized.
In 1961 began the first attempts to make priority lists of the rivers that should be protected against exploitation. As a result of negotiations between Vattenfallsverket and an association of Swedish nature conservationists, an agreement was made. It came to be know as "The Peace in Sarek". The concept for this agreement was that if Vattenfall gave up projects in some of the most valuable streams (some of those for a very limited time span), the nature conservationists would refrain from opposing other projects. It should be noted that most of the streams "protected" by this deal were not only highly valuable but also expensive to utilize for hydro power.
One of the rivers that was given up for harnessing was Vindel River, which was one of the the four largest rivers still not touched by the hydro power companies. In 1962 a plan for the construction of dams along Vindel was completed. And within a few years a very intense public debate emerged. I was growing up in the middle of this fight. People in the river valley, as well as in the entire country, either opposed or supported the plans of Vattenfall. It was a war between the good and the evil on a very personal plane. Families and villages were split into the two camps.
The main arguments put forward by the local dam
supporters were, above all, hope for more jobs in
the area and for money to the region (and, of
course, individual landowners). Among the early
"river savers", other arguments were stressed:
destruction of nature and fishing; flooded homes
and land; that the damage to nature would last
forever, or at least to the next glaciation, while
the benefits from new jobs would only remain for
the duration of construction of the dams. The
responsibility not to destroy the natural resources
for the coming generations was often emphasized.
In the same decision, Vattenfall was ordered to draw plans for the development of hydro power in other rivers instead, for example Kalix River. However, the animated debate in the case of Vindel was a very important source of inspiration for people throughout the country. Immediately, activist groups started to oppose Vattenfall along the Kalix as well. Actually, I would say that the fight for Vindel was the starting point for the environmental movement in Sweden. We could see how the interest for the environment as a whole was growing and how common people became involved - not only a few well-educated specialists.
During the first half of the 1970s many new projects were met by local activists. In 1974, Älvräddarnas Samorganisation (The River Savers Association) was founded in order to facilitate cooperation among different activist groups toward a common goal - to stop the further exploitation of Sweden’s rivers. At this time two large governmental studies were undertaken. One on the environmental values threatened and the other on the energy production potential. The results of these surveys was used as background information when the Physical Plan for Sweden (Fysiska Riksplaneringen, frp) was decided in the Swedish Parliament in 1977.
According to this Physical Plan, a number of rivers and streams were given an indirect protected status. Much of the work within The River Savers has aimed at adding further rivers and streams to this category. The number of protected waters was for several years increasing more or less annually as a result of initiatives from Members of Parliament or the government.
A further step forward was taken in 1983 when the old Water Act, originating from 1918, was replaced with a new one. The previous legislation in this field had as a primary objective to promote hydro exploitation. The new law gives much greater weight to environmental aspects.
The most important step was, however, when the Natural Resources Act was approved in 1987. This act explicitly prohibits construction of new dams for hydro power on those rivers that were protected in the Physical Plan for Sweden. Actually, not only dams in new sites are prohibited but also larger reconstructions that can cause negative environmental effects. For most of the protected streams and rivers, not only the main stream is protected but also all tributaries.
The main arguments in the debate have to some extent changed with time. The loss of aesthetic values has, of course, been one of the most appealing arguments over the years, but with a decreasing weight over the years. Instead, much attention has been put on the fact that rivers are complex ecosystems which are severely damaged, or even destroyed, by damming and flow control. As I mentioned earlier, hopes for new jobs were tempting, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. This made some of the trade unions big promoters of new dams, for example, the Construction Workers Union. Time has proven, however, that the increase in jobs from construction of new dams was very temporary. After a dam was built the number of jobs in the affected area dropped dramatically. The promised "positive injection" to the region’s economy did not materialize. The value of tourism was to a large extent neglected during the 1960s and 1970s, while today it is considered to be an important branch of business in many regions. It has also been recognized, as we heard from Lennart Pittja, that the Saami culture has been severely threatened by the hydro power industry.
There are of course many differences in the ways our Nordic rivers are dammed compared with what we hear from our colleagues in the South. One very important difference is that the seasonal variations in flow in the Northern rivers are almost perfect mirror images of the variations in the need for electricity. During the winter, when we heat our houses, the precipitation comes as snow and doesn't reach the rivers. When the snow melts during spring and summer, we don't need as much electricity. Therefore, it is necessary to store water from the summer to the coming winter in the uppermost parts of the river basins. This is done in huge storage reservoirs, which in many cases causes flooding of vast areas of land valuable for farming, forestry and reindeer herding. That is, also up here in the North we have conflicting interests along the river basins.
How then can we explain the tremendous successes of the Swedish river conservation movement?
* First of all, we have to realize that most (70%)
of the Swedish rivers are already exploited for
What about the future? Today there is a political consensus about the rivers. However, it can not be taken for granted that this will be the case forever. The political situation can change. Laws can be changed. We must, therefore, keep the organization active, even though the situation for most of the unexploited rivers is good. It is crucial to keep the interest for the free flowing rivers alive.
Lars Lövgren firstname.lastname@example.org