Background on the Urrá hydroelectric project

This article is a translation of the Summary of the Submission by Asprocig, the Association of Producers for Communal Development of La Ciénaga Grande de Lorica, to the World Commission on Dams, for public hearings to be held in São Paulo. You can reach Asprocig at


The Urrá I hydroelectric project is located on the Sinú River, 30 kilometers south of the city of Tierralta, in Córdoba department (Colombia). It is in a tropical jungle zone, part of Paramillo Nature Preserve. The construction of the dam was first proposed in the 1950s, but due to serious questions about potentially catastrophic effects on the Sinú River basin and its inhabitants, it wasn't until 1992 that construction was authorized as part of a national plan to expand the country's energy supply in the wake of the energy crisis Colombia suffered in 1990.

The 7,400-hectare reservoir has a capacity of 340 megawatts, with four generation units of 85 megawatts each. The energy produced by the dam would produce about 3% of the national total. The principal work on the project began in 1992 and were finished in mid-1998. The contractor on the project was the Swedish company Skanska.

Urrá S.A., whose largest shareholder is the Colombian government, received permission to build the dam in 1992. It now needs a new license to fill the reservoir and operate it; that licensing process is overseen by the Environment Ministry.


Just as many had argued in academic debates, the construction of the dam has had a series of extremely serious social and environmental impacts on the ecological stability of the Sinú River basin and the survival of thousands of indigenous, peasant and fishing families who live there. In the lower Sinú basin, which is the area we are focusing on, the main environmental impact has been the impediment of spawning migration by the principal species of rheophilic fish (Prochilodus reticulatus, Brycon morei, Sorubin lima, Leporinus sp., etc.) This event, caused by the 73-foot high dam, has produced a series of effects:

* Loss of biodiversity due to the modification of the chain of aquatic ecosystems.

* Significant decrease in the fish population in the main bodies of water, and as a result, unemployment and general deterioration of the quality of life in the small fishing, peasant and indigenous towns.

* Deterioration of the food supply in all the towns in the region which depended on fishing as a principal source of low-cost protein.

* Severe deterioration of the social and cultural structure of peasant, indigenous, and fishing communities.

The number of those directly affected by this problem is estimated at 60,000, about 15.4% of the total population of the lower Sinú basin. Fishing production, previously estimated at approximately 6,000 tons annually (ASPROCIG, 1997) has decreased to 1,700 tons (INPA, 1999).


Since 1994, before the dam's construction began, indigenous, peasant and fishing communities of the lower Sinú basin began to publicize the disastrous effects that the dam would cause. However, the construction continued while its proponents refused to listen to those who stood to be most affected, who demanded to be consulted about the project. The construction of the dam has violated their right to life, to a healthy environment, to work, to their own health, and to participate.

To defend these rights, those affected have gone to the Constitutional Court, which in November 1998 and March 1999 ruled in their favor and ordered the suspension of the filling and operation of the reservoir until the effects are mitigated and they are compensated.

The struggle to defend these rights has cost the life of various intellectuals such as Alberto Alzate Patiño and Mario Calderón; and indigenous leaders such as Alonso Domicó Jarupia and Lucindo Domicó Cabrera; and the exile of others who supported the affected communities. All of these crimes have been brought to the attention of the international community, but to date there has been no justice. Worst of all, threats to the affected communities continue every day, and the Colombian government does nothing.


Urrá S.A. and the Colombian government have totally refused to allow the affected communities to participate in decision making about the construction of the dam. It is only through their own actions, international pressure, and the ruling of the Constitutional Court that Urrá S.A. and the Environment Ministry have taken timid steps toward consulting those affected.

But despite the court ruling which ordered respect for the rights of those affected and the mitigation and compensation of the damage caused by the dam, Urrá S.A. and the Environment Ministry still lack the will to seek a serious and lasting agreement in this conflict.


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