Icelandic wetlands under threat

Posted: 6 June 2002

Author: Arni Finnsson

Author Info: Arni Finnsson is Chair of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association

The Thjorsarver wetlands in the central highlands of Iceland have been threatened by hydropower developments for more than 30 years. In May 2002, Iceland's national power company, Landsvirkjun, released a new Environmental Impact Assessment report for a controversial dam. Unless this is refuted, the dam will go ahead.

The Thjorsarver wetlands of central Iceland are a unique ecosystem. Bounded by the Hofsjökull glacier to the north and by volcanic deserts to the east, south and west, these lush wetlands are characterized by tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds. Covering some 120 sq. kms, they are an important oasis in an area with very little or no plant cover.

Thjorsarver wetlands, Iceland© Jóhann Óli HilmarssonThe area is a hotspot for biodiversity. BirdLife International have recognized the Thjorsarver wetlands as an Important Bird Area, primarily because of its importance for the Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrynchus). With 6-10,000 breeding pairs, the Thjorsarver wetlands support one of the largest breeding colonies of these birds in the world, and provide a moulting site after their summer migration.

The wetlands are also an important breeding area for other tundra birds, including the Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) and Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Indeed, the wetlands probably have more breeding birds than any other area in the central highlands. In addition, the wetlands have more vascular plant and moss flora than any other area in the otherwise barren central highlands. The lichen flora of the permafrost mounds (palsas) is also diverse and includes some rare species.

The wetlands are also a hotspot for controversy, which has erupted once again. The issue is whether the building of reservoirs and other infrastructure for hydroelectric power development within the wetlands should go ahead.

The Thjorsa River is vital not only to the Thjorsarver wetlands, but also to Iceland's hydroelectric industry. Together with its tributaries, the river generates most of the electricity produced by the country. This electricity is used for domestic purposes as well as for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting.

Proposals to flood the Thjorsarver wetlands as part of further hydroelectric developments go back more than 30 years. In the 1960s, Landsvirkjun, Iceland's national power company, announced plans to construct a 200km2 reservoir that would have inundated almost all of the wetlands, including the breeding grounds of the Pink-footed Goose. In response to public opposition, the project was abandoned in 1981 and the Icelandic government established the Thjorsarver Nature Reserve in part of the wetlands.

This protection is not absolute however. A provision was included that still allows Landsvirkjun to build a dam in the area, provided that the project is found acceptable by the government's Nature Conservation Agency and provided that scientific research shows that the dam will not harm the wetlands.

Accordingly, Landsvirkjun proposed a 30m-high dam with a smaller reservoir covering some 65km2. Facing mounting criticism from both scientists and the local population, Landsvirkjun lowered its ambitions again, and is now proposing a 24m-high dam with a 32.5km2 reservoir.

To move the dam project forward, on 30 April the utility released a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Landsvirkjun argues that its current development plans will affect only a minor part of the wetlands' vegetated area, and that this is the most economical hydroelectric development scheme available if the company is to provide energy for an expanding aluminium smelter close to the country's capital, Reykjavik.

But conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association are concerned by the loss of habitat for the Pink-footed Goose that the flooding will cause. In addition, there are fears that the reservoir will cause desertification as a consequence of erosion from riverbanks and changes in ground-water level. The latter could also affect the fine balance between permafrost and tundra vegetation in this area. In addition, although Landsvirkjun is trying to sell the project as renewable energy, scientists estimate that approximately one third of the water volume in the reservoir will be lost in little more than half a century due to sedimentation.

The public too are not happy with the proposal to flood the Thjorsarver wetlands. Public awareness and support for conservation has increased in the 21 years since the wetlands were protected, and last year the local population adopted a unanimous resolution against hydroelectric development in the wetlands.

The irony is that the Icelandic government itself also recognizes the importance of the wetlands. In 1990, the government added a 37,500ha area to the List of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar List). This listing obliges the government to maintain the ecological character of the Thjorsarver wetlands - seemingly at odds with the plans of its own power company to flood the area.

Environmental groups believe there are alternatives to further hydropower developments that could be used for the aluminium smelter, such as harnessing Iceland's geothermal energy. Indeed, the Ministry of Industry has explored possibilities for providing energy from other sources, and according to press reports from May last year, alternatives are available.

For the dam to go ahead, the project must be accepted by the Nature Conservation Agency, local authorities, and the State Planning Agency. As things stand, it appears the first two groups will not accept the project. Following submissions from the public, the State Planning Agency will rule on the EIA in early July. This ruling can be either for or against the project. At present it is not clear what will happen if the State Planning Agency rules for the project without the support of the Nature Conservation Agency and local authorities. However, given the uniqueness of the area as well as its international importance, many in Iceland are hoping that their government will take measures to prevent any damage to the Thjorsarver wetlands.

Source: WWF International