Dammed if you Do: Svaneti


Last night, just after the shop closing hour of 8 pm, came a knock on the door and a shout for my wife. Thinking it was a late customer asking for leniency, I opened the shop door, as we’re not too Swiss with our timing here. Instead, it was a neighbor and his wife with a petition for us to consider signing.

They said that 59 hydroelectric dams of various sizes are planned to be built in Upper Svaneti. Likely none will be as big as the decades-finished and functioning main Enguri one, which is huge by world standards. But the claims against such dams are many.

Local economies will benefit hardly at all; many of the investors are companies from abroad, and the electricity will at best go elsewhere in Georgia, if not to booming, energy-hungry Turkey or further. The climate will change greatly, and not in our favor, likely getting more moist; currently we enjoy our mosquito-free condition very much, thank you, though this changing is likely to be the smallest result of the increase in humidity. Resettlement issues for villages set to be drowned (they are not many, but when it’s my house it’s my house) will be messy, unsatisfactory, miserly in payment, and poor in choices for relocation. Ancient churches and, even more lamentable for a people firmly in touch with their dead, burial grounds will be lost under the waters. (“Ancient” here might be fifteen centuries for the former, more for the latter). Rivers of all sizes will be altered, polluted, in construction and running of the dams, even allowing new diseases to spring up based on the changes in chemicals.

And because of the $ signs, the greed, proper investigation of impacts, environmental and sociological, has been swept under the rug. This is what they claim, and this claim seems to me to be the most important, a cause of much of the above complaints.

There have been protest meetings already, chiefly in Khaishi (part of which will be flooded) and Mestia (site of one of the larger dams). More are scheduled. I don’t know if these, and their petitions painstakingly gathered on foot, can or will have the sought effect of at least forcing a moratorium; until enough studies can be done and the local population satisfied that it is not getting the raw end of the deal in every sense.

It will be to everyone’s benefit if things are delayed enough to persuade people that the homework has been done and they are not being sold a bill of goods. But I admit to being pessimistic that this will happen, and would love to be proved wrong. My father’s job as site manager for many power stations around the world, including hydroelectric ones, long ago persuaded me that such dams can bring a net benefit to their communities and countries.

But the world is also changing. Solar, wind, geothermal and wave power are all on the rise as alternative power generation methods. The efficiency of their output is constantly on the rise, costs and carbon footprints going down at the same time as research is being done at a hurried pace to improve the ways we produce, store and use our electricity. (see https://newatlas.com/ for daily news in these fields and more.) I am encouraged to see the seven huge windmills running near Surami; more, please! An Indian startup, https://www.avantgardeinnovations.com/ claims to have a new home design for one of these which they say will cost about as much as an iPhone and will set households free of the grid. Expensively built hydro might be on the way out in the face of such competitors. I admit, I can hardly wait.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1800 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri: www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

By Tony Hanmer

15 March 2018 18:47