"When they first built the Bennett Dam, there were deep impacts, changes to water levels and quality. The Peace River is such an important river. Water is life, we can’t eat money. We don’t do anything at Beaver First Nation for money—we do things in a forward-thinking way. Money comes and goes, but the land is there forever." - Chief Trevor Mercredi
Across the Mackenzie River Basin, and especially in the Peace-Athabasca-Slave River systems where hydroelectric projects have been developed and are expanding, communities experience multiple effects of dams.
Hydroelectric projects harm the relationship of First Nations and other communities to these river systems, the integrity of sacred and cultural sites such as burial areas, access to traditional fishing areas, the health of fish valued for food security, and many other related values and uses.
Impacts of hydroelectric projects
The impacts of hydroelectric projects are multiple, including lower water levels, decreased water quality, and unpredictable water flows. These changes to water impact ice consistency, freeze-up, and thaw, leading to uncertainty in communities about ice safety and an increase in accidents associated with thinning ice.
Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation has documented changes in the Mayo River in response to hydroelectric development. The river does not freeze the same, water levels are unpredictable, groundwater is changing, and ice jams in the river.
The water in the Peace River and Peace Athabasca Delta has been similarly harmed.
"When [the] Bennet Dam started, losing the water, there’s no more fresh water that comes in. Like every 4 years, we used to have fresh water. We used to have ice jams, and clear out all the bad water, clean everything out, strain it out, and then clean water would come in. We don’t see that anymore after the Bennet Dam. Before that, we used to have lots of clean water that would come in. You don’t have to pack water like today. Out there you got fresh water all the time and that’s what." - Mikisew Elder
On access to healthy fish
Key fishing areas are increasingly inaccessible due to hydroelectric projects. Shallow water resulting from dams leads to a decline in fish populations.
"After the Bennett Dam, the fish went down, it got too shallow. During freeze-up, [there were] no fish in Quatre Fourche River. I tried it a couple of years now in the springtime, 2 years ago. Under the ice and there’s no fish, as soon as the ice broke up then there was fish." - Mikisew Elder
Even when fish are accessible, they are found to be unhealthy due to high mercury levels resulting from flooding due to dams.
Community members from Łutsël K’e consider fish in the area around Nonacho Lake to be “ruined” due to flooding from the Talston River Hydroelectric Project. Increased mercury levels and changes in the quality of fish tissue make them no longer good to eat.
On animal harvests
Elders in the Peace Athabasca Delta attribute the collapse of profitable muskrat harvest to decreasing water levels caused by the Bennett Dam.
"Muskrats, years ago, in the 70s… even early 70s and 60s. There were lots of muskrat around this area. People used to kill 3000 or 4000 rats in a trapping season. I guess the reason there [were] lots of rats in those days was [that] there was a lot of water. Water was high. [There was] always water out in the lakes and ponds and …. Lots of muskrats all over. Once the water started going down, once the water dropped… Every year after the Bennett Dam, the water is worse than ever. Now there are no muskrats anymore. They’re gone." - Joe Vermillion, Mikise Cree First Nation (from McLachlan, 2012)
On spirituality and culture
Key cultural sites are no longer useful due to contaminated fish, or are no longer accessible due to flooding from dams. These changes alienate communities from meaningful locations.
The Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation believes that a powerful medicine woman sits in the Lockhart River. Each year, the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation go to the site for a Spiritual Gathering. They have also regularly visited gravesites around Nonacho Lake. Due to hydroelectric projects, they are increasingly alienated from key sites, and they have not been compensated for these losses.
Community decision-making on hydroelectric projects
Communities express concerns and at times opposition to hydroelectric development. For instance, proposed hydroelectric projects at Fraser Falls and 2 Mile site on the Stewart River are strongly opposed by many members of Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation due to their impacts to spawning areas and cultural sites.
Industry-driven decision-making often disregards First Nations input. On the Peace River, for example, BC Hydro did their own environmental assessment on Site C. Further, they turned away First Nations from contributing to assessments and decision-making, saying there will be no impacts to rights and interests.
Some communities have responded with legal action. The Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation, for example, has filed a court case against the dam on Nonacho Lake, which was built without any consultation with or compensation for the community.
Other communities emphasize the need to educate young people about these issues.
We have a real fear of water quality, water shortage. We have to do everything we can. You don’t have to be a leader to speak your mind. We need everybody to stand up. If we teach our kids that that drop of water is the most important thing on the planet, they will grow up respecting it. – Chief Trevor Mercredi
The three rivers studied by Tracking Change - the Tapajós, Tocantins, and Trombetas - each have a high fish diversity, which could be threatened by hydroelectric development projects.
While the Tapajós have no dams yet, dams along the Tocantins have created stress for local communities and species. Interviews with fishers indicate the potential effects of the São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) Dam on the people living along the river.
Impacts on fish
Every community considers particular fish “priorities” for their food security and economic sustainability. Along the Tapajós, approximately one-third of the total number of prioritized fish would be affected by the SLT dam. The effects would be felt most strongly closest to the dam, but people far downstream would also be affected. All of these communities must be considered in decision-making about the dam.
With decreased access to fish, community members lose reduced household income and communities lose their regional economies. These losses threaten food security at the household and regional levels.
As an example, in the lower Tapajós, floodplain fish such as the Tucunare´ and Acaratinga may become more difficult to access due to changes in water levels. As a result, fishers may need to travel further to new fishing sites, increasing the fuel costs and time spent fishing. As a result, fishers’ economic revenues would decrease. The viability of the local economy would also be threatened.
With a decrease in fish availability, people living along the Tapajós will not only lose a main source of protein but also a key source of income. As a result, many may need to change employment, which is difficult for fishers who are typically skilled in their sole occupation.
Impacts differ according to social factors such as age and gender. Age In the lower Tapajós, many fishers have other sources of income in addition to fishing. By contrast, in the middle Tapajós, fishers tend to be older and are more dependent on fisheries for their primary income. These differences must be considered in mitigation plans for hydroelectric development. Gender Most fishers are men who contribute income to the entire household. As a result, losses to fishery catches would threaten the most important, and sometimes only, source of income for local households, which typically hold more than four people.
For female fishers who are economically independent, losing their income may mean they become completely economically dependent on men.
Losing fishing livelihoods results in stress to fishers and their families, whose identities and cultures are linked with fishing.
Complex spearfishing techniques have been used by Amazonian fishers for generations as a legacy of the Indigenous people. Because spearfishing techniques are commonly used in flooded areas, changes in the river due to the SLT dam could make spearfishing obsolete. This would threaten the cultural heritage of fishers.
Local people living along the Mekong River and its tributary, the Sebok River, have a deep connection to the ecosystem, as well as longstanding knowledge and practices that are critical to their fishing livelihoods.
While local people carry significant knowledge about fish migrations, this knowledge is impacted by the presence of dams, such as the Pak Mun.
Knowledge transfer interrupted
The Pak Mun dam and dams along the Sesan River have blocked fish migrations and made river transportation up and down the river more.
People above and below a dam do not communicate about fish migrations as much as before, since fish migrations are now limited. However, some knowledge sharing still occurs.
Impacts of dams
Local people share the impacts of dams on various components of life along the river, including:
The Pak Mun and Ban Ot dams have negatively impacted fisheries, but with effects on different species that migrate through the Mekong and Sebok rivers.
Many local people can no longer support themselves on fishing alone. These people have coped with the loss of fishing livelihoods by migrating to bigger cities to look for work, switching to manual labor for income, farming fish, purchasing fish from the market for food, and agricultural work.
Women carry the most household responsibilities for food collection and income generation for their families, which hydroelectric dams threaten by impacting fish populations. Typically, women living just below the Mekong dams experience a reduced quality of life after dam construction due to difficulties accessing fish for food. It is more difficult for women to recuperate from these challenges, as many programs compensate men for fishing losses.
Fishing knowledge is still important
Fishers still have key knowledge that can give insight into the impacts of dams. Fisher knowledge, combined with science and village fish catch data through community-based impact assessments, provides information that can shape future hydroelectric development projects and also define how the current dams could better serve communities.