The people of Suriname have taken control of a major hydroelectricity project in the country from US bauxite producer, major Alcoa.
The January 1 take-over of the Afobaka Dam by the government of President Desi Bouterse came after five years of tough negotiations as Alcoa winds down major aspects of its decades-old bauxite mining projects in the country.
The dam, located in southeastern Brokopondo district, provides up to 180 megawatts of power. This is much more than the daily needs of the country which has a population of 500,000 people.
In fact, the new dam owner, state energy company, Staatsolie, says that up to 70 megawatts of power is not used by anyone largely because there is need to harness more water to maximise the full 180 megawatt capacity of the dam.
Officials say a new and sustained effort would be made to light up jungle communities not previously served by the previous owners. The conclusion of talks and the signing of termination agreements come as campaigning for general elections on May 25 ramps up with the end of the holiday season.
The Afobaka Dam is an embankment dam with a main gravity dam section on the Suriname River near Afobaka in Brokopondo district of the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community country. The primary purpose of the dam is to generate hydroelectric power and it supports a 180 MW power station.
In 1958, the Suriname Aluminum Company, a subsidiary of Alcoa, gained an agreement with the Suriname government to build the dam to power an aluminium smelter.
Construction began in 1961 and it was completed in 1964. About 75 per cent of power generated is used for processing aluminum, while the rest is used in Paramaribo downstream. The power station was operational in 1965 but the very large reservoir, Brokopondo Reservoir, was not completely filled until 1971.
Greenhouse gases emitted from the reservoir resulted in poor water quality for decades. Highly acidic water also damaged the power station’s turbines. Some opposition parties are already complaining that the change of ownership and the media hype this has generated could only serve to help the campaign of Bouterse in the coming weeks.
Chairman of Staatsolie, Rudolf Elias, says engineers will soon examine the possibility of harnessing water from nearby creeks and small rivers to add to the volume now being channelled to the dam and its turbines to generate additional amounts of electricity. If this is successful, barring droughts and periods of prolonged dry weather, areas not now served with electricity in the interior could be powered up.
Elias says extensive studies will be carried out to determine the feasibility of bringing more water to the dam in the coming months as Staatsolie takes control of the project on behalf of the state. Alcoa had controlled the project for close to 100 years.
Bauxite production which was the country’s main export earner for years has declined with Alcoa’s scaling down of operations in recent years owing largely to declining reserves in its concession areas.
The country goes to the polls in five months with President Bouterse’s National Democratic Party seeking a third five-year term. Bouterse himself faces one of his toughest challenges and campaigns yet as a court recently sentenced him to 20 years in prison for his part in the 1982 murders of 15 government opponents during military rule in Suriname.
Opposition parties are fixing to take advantage of this but the NDP is countering with some major national projects including a massive road paving exercise and low cost house construction as the electoral clock ticks down to late May.