Condemnation of Europe’s largest reservoir project grows

The European Commission is to begin investigating a Portuguese reservoir, which will be Europe’s largest, while allegations of pushing the Iberian Lynx to extinction and flooding ancient cave art continue to grow.

The European Commission is to investigate possible irregularities concerning what is to be Europe’s largest reservoir the 250 square kilometre (100 square mile) Alqueva project in the parched southeastern Alentejo region built by Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infra-estruturas do Alqueva (EDIA), following widespread condemnation. A coalition of five Portuguese environmental NGOs has already described the project work, costing US $1.43 billion and partly funded by European Union taxpayers as “one of the biggest acts of environmental destruction ever in Portugal” (see related story).

Although the Commission is to investigate the project over a failure to provide progress reports on how money is being spent following allegations that EU Cohesion Fund money has been used illicitly to build a hydroelectric complex, it has been asked by environmentalists to suspend work for contravening the Habitats Directive, which protects the Iberian Lynx, the world’s most endangered wildcat. The campaign group, SOS Lynx says that the Alqueva project could push the Iberian Lynx to the brink of extinction, as the area to be submerged is an important refuge for the tiny remaining population, which only numbers between 43 and 53 individuals in Portugal. The group is also demanding an investigation into why the Lynx, which it says has been sighted in the area to be submerged, was not included in an official environmental impact assessment of the project.

A compromise measure proposed by conservationists would be to operate the new dam at a level of 139 metres instead of the proposed 151, saving almost half of the surface area to be submerged and over 400,000 of a total 1.3 million trees to be felled.

Meanwhile, one of the archaeologist’s involved in a study of the area to be submerged, Manuel Calado of the University of Lisbon, said that he had discovered cave art dating back up to 20,000 years, extending for 10-12 kilometres (6.25-7.5 miles) within the reservoir project’s area. Archaeologists have now called for the project to be halted while an independent international commission studies the engravings. They say the new findings are almost identical to those found in northern Portugal at Foz Coa, which resulted in a dam project being shelved.

However, EDIA denied the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology’s claims, saying that it after exhaustive studies with 20 teams of archaeologists it contracted, it was unaware of any Neolithic engravings in Portuguese territory set to be submerged, and that carvings found were not in this area. It added that engravings had been found in adjacent areas in Spain and that it had co-operated with authorities upon their discovery.

EDIA is firmly supported by the Portuguese government which says the project will generate hydroelectric power for the region, provide water to turn the arid soil into fertile fields and bring 20,000 jobs to the area, which is one of Portugal’s poorest, partly through building golf courses for tourists. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, who reportedly stopped the Foz Coa project, has said that the importance of Alqueva to the national economy means the project will go ahead regardless of the engravings.

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