Published August 6, 2004


For some Icelanders, environmentalists represent a few sentimentalists who hang onto antiquated notions of preserving nature despite economic “realities.” Yet when Kárahnjúkar was first proposed in 2002, only 49% of Icelanders approved of the project, most of whom said that it would bring jobs to the East. Those opposed to this dam have defied the demographics, ranging from dyed-in-the-wool activists to usually non-political farmers who found themselves in a situation where they were practically forced to act. One group in particular, Náttúruverndasamtökin (Icelandic Nature Conservation Association), has been quite active in debunking many of the myths surrounding the Kárahnjúkar project and is today the largest NGO (Non-governmental organization) in Iceland, with 1300 members, including Hilmar Malmquist, who is also curator of the Natural History Museum of Kópavogur.

What environmental impact would the Kárahnjúkar dam have?

Probably the biggest environmental impact of any project ever in Iceland. In an area with few roads, where you can enjoy the birds, geese and reindeer, this reservoir will cover approximately 57 square kilometres, creating a 20 to 25 kilometre long cut across the highlands. This lake will fluctuate in depth by 40 metres. At it’s high point, what was once land becomes silt. At it’s low point, this silt dries and will be carried by winds from the southwest over Egilsstaðir, the wetlands to the northeast and over much of the surrounding farm area. In truth, the government was supposed to fully examine the environmental impact of projects like this but never did. Even Landsvirkjun [the national power company] wasn’t completely sure what impact the project would have. The general rule in Iceland has always been, “When in doubt, nature benefits,” and that’s been completely ignored here.

The argument could be made that this project will create jobs.

The vast majority of these jobs are in the construction of the dam and the aluminium smelter – when that’s finished, so are the jobs. In addition, almost all the labour for this project has been imported because Icelandic labour standards are so high, in terms of minimum wage, benefits and so on. Once built, only 15 people will be required to run the plant. An additional 750 jobs could be created in related fields but at far too high a price with far too little benefit. The real solution to the employment problem in the east would be for the government to create a job diversity program.

If the project were halted, what kind of solutions could we give to the people in the East?

The money which the government is putting into this project could be invested into creating jobs repairing roads, developing the tourist industry, sea ranching and also the building of geothermal power stations and “running water” plants – hydropower that doesn’t create reservoirs – to produce hydrogen. This list goes on. Expecting Kárahnjúkar to solve the problems in the east would be to put all our eggs in one basket. There’s no need to rush into building this dam and smelter – we have plenty of solutions right here.

Anyone wishing to get in touch with the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association can visit their website at

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