By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A landslide at Colombia's biggest dam that forced the evacuation of about 26,000 people highlights the risks to communities who have lived in the area for generations, according to campaigners who have protested for years over the massive project.
The $4 billion Ituango hydroelectric dam in northwestern Colombia has been dogged by protests since construction started in 2010 but was due to start generating power this year as part of a global push into clean renewable energy projects.
But campaigners fear the Ituango dam will wreak havoc on the environment and destroy fishing and farming communities and they have been campaigning to stop the dam's construction.
However Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), the public utility company that owns the dam with the government's local development agency IDEA, says the project will not harm the environment and will create jobs and needed infrastructure.
The long-running battle resurfaced this month when people living along the river had to leave their homes for makeshift shelters after rain triggered a landslide that blocked a tunnel used to divert water from the river downstream from the project.
As the rains continued, EPM said it was working to plan for a "worst-case scenario" of the dam breaking under pressure.
"We are working jointly with all institutions on the worst-case scenario, which is the breaking of the dam, which would provoke a huge flood in down-river municipalities," said Jorge Londono De La Cuesta, head of EPM.
EPM has blamed recent landslides on "unpredictable geological conditions", but environmentalists said they have become more frequent since construction work started, blaming the felling of trees to clear space, and fear more landslides.
"Lately, the river has been full of trunks and trees, and the organic plant material and sediment blocked the tunnel," said Isabel Zuleta, spokeswoman for Rios Vivos, a local group that has campaigned against the dam.
"Today's emergency isn't a surprise for us," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
THREATS AND VIOLENCE
Authorities said they are still investigating the cause of the latest crisis, which has exposed the bitter divisions over a project that was aiming to start operating in December and provide about 17 percent of Colombia's electricity by 2021.
EPM, owned by the Medellin city government, was this month put on a negative rating watch by Fitch due to likely delays in the project and concerns over possible cost overruns.
Activists have voiced concerns about the environmental impact the dam could have on the surrounding area for years.
Zuleta said she has received death threats over her work and this month two Rios Vivos activists were gunned down and killed although it remains unclear who is responsible.
"There's no doubt the threats and killings are related to their opposition to the dam," said human rights lawyer Luis Carlos Montenegro from the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective.
EPM declined to comment on the violence and what is being done to protect activists but has highlighted the project is expected to create 6,000 direct and 24,000 indirect jobs and has led to new drainage systems, health clinics, roads and schools.
"This plan has as its principles respect for people, their roots, their ancestry, their traditions and a responsibility to protect natural resources," EPM said in written comments.
The office of Colombia's attorney general said last week it was investigating "possible environmental damage" in the area as well as the way contracts for the work had been awarded.
Up to 800 families have been evicted from their homes to make way for the dam since 2010, according to Rios Vivos and the U.S.-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
The company declined to comment on the evictions.
Carla Garcia, a program director at CIEL, which supports Rios Vivos, said the dam's reservoir would flood 11,120 acres, threatening the livelihoods of many of the 180,000 people who depend on the river for fishing, artisanal mining, and farming.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which is putting up finance for the project, said EPM was compensating families directly impacted by the dam, although it did not give figures.
Montenegro said some families had got some compensation.
"But this doesn't account for the loss of their culture, the loss of the river and their way of living," he said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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