I am equally fascinated by great works of engineering and by nature. While I value the comfort of western life style I also am concerned with the consequences it has when it comes to using natural resources. The Kárahnjúkar project is a good example for this. During my first Iceland vacation I was staying in the Lagarfljót area and the Lonely Planet recommended a drive into the highland to the construction site for the Kárahnjúkar damn. Driving through the vast wilderness, passing patches of ice and snow as well as a herd of reindeer I arrived at the construction site. At this point in time most of the construction was already done and some of the workers’ camps already disbanded. Still it was impressing. Even the giant trucks and construction machinery was dwarfed by the dam. But all the concrete and steel, the 8.5 cubic meters of rock for the main dam looked tiny and insignificant in comparison to the landscape I just had driven through. I went to the Hálslón reservoir and watched the workers far below me in the Hafrahvammar canyon. The main and auxiliary dam cut deep in the flank of the mount Femri Kárahnjúkur and while I stood there and watched I couldn’t help but feel that this was wrong.
I understand the need for industrial job in an area which is dependend on fishing (with its negative impact on nature if done in excess) and tourism (again, negative if excessive) – but then it was hard for me to believe that the project was neither harmful to nature nor wishful thinking when it came to economic use and society benefits.
The next year I returned to the area and followed the project from the dam to the aluminium smelter which was the reason for the dam some 90 road-km eastwards. The dam was fully operational, the powerhouse was accessible for visitors (Landsvirkjun does have a visitor center) and a new visitor center for the whole area was just opened the time I travelled through the area. On the other hand the Lagarfljót had a deep brownish colour and locals confirmed that this was due to the mud from the dam. The rivers that historically would have gotten all the water from the highland are were much lower too. Reyðarfjörður in the East is where the Alcoa aluminium smelter is located. According to my Lonely Planet this town is and old port and fishermen town, but now it hosts a couple of new public buildings like the indoor sports hall and many new houses for the workers. The structure of the village had changed. During the construction a remote container village had hosted up to 2.800 (foreign) construction workers – in a town of 600-800 Icelanders. Now these workers were mostly gone and only signs in Polish at the local supermarket remained. However about 500 jobs were created by the project in the smelter and a new deep water harbour was created, adding some more jobs. People from all over Iceland moved there to work for good money, as my host put it. But then, many leave after a few months as the work is extremely hard. Nobody knows what the effects on the community will be.
The village had a similar feel to me like German communities close to nuclear power sites – very wealthy, shiny community buildings and very good infrastructure to “bribe” the people living there.
I am not going to judge if this is a good or bad project – Icelanders had and still have a controversy going on such projects – but in the end I was sad to see another piece of nature being “conquered” by civilisation.