Kárahnjúkar dam, Iceland


This very conflictive hydroelectric dam is part of a complex of dams, it has an installed power of 690 MW and is meant to produce yearly 4.600 Gwh. It is placed to the north of the glacier Vatnajökull on the rivers Jökulsá á Brú and Jökulsá í Fljótsdal. Its purpose was to feed electricity to Alcoa's aluminium smelter Fjardaál, at Reyðarfjörður. The conflict was because of the project itself (finished in 2009) and also because it was seen as part of a much wider push for enormous investments in hyroelectricity at very high environmental cost for the benefits of aluminium multinationals such as Alcoa. The project was built by Impregilo, the Italian building firm. Opponents point out that the sediment from glacier water will fill the dam quickly.

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Basic Data
NameKárahnjúkar dam, Iceland
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Establishment of reserves/national parks
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsWith the installed capacity of 690 MW, the plant is the largest hydroelectric power plant in Iceland. The project, named after nearby Mount Kárahnjúkur, involves damming the Jökulsá á Dal River and the Jökulsá í Fljótsdal River with five dams, creating three reservoirs. Water from the reservoirs is then diverted through underground water tunnels and down towards a single underground power station. The Kárahnjúkastífla Dam is standing 193 metres tall with a length of 730 metres. It is one of a complex of dams.

The Fjardaál aluminium smelter reached full operation in April 2008. Construction began in 2004 by Bechtel (for Alcoa) and the facility contains a smelter, cast house, rod production and deep-water port. The smelter employs 450 people and produces 940 tons of aluminium a day, with capacity of 346,000 metric tons of aluminium per year.

The project is funded by Landsvirkjun, which operates the dams and Fljótsdalur Power Station. The Italian company Impregilo was the largest contractor working on the dams. The total cost of the hydropower project is 1.3 billion USD and the smelter cost about 1 billion USD.
Level of Investment (in USD)1,300,000,000 (dam) + 1,000,000,000 (smelter)
Type of PopulationRural
Start Date2004
Company Names or State EnterprisesSalini-Impregilo from Italy
Landsvirkjun from Iceland
Alcoa from United States of America
Relevant government actorsGovernment of Iceland
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersSaving Iceland, Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, , Iceland Nature Conservation Association with international support from the WWF Arctic Program, International Rivers Network.
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Celebrities including Bjork, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, the artist Olafur Eliasson
Forms of MobilizationArtistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson exhibited his work at Tate Modern in London and spoke out against the project in late 2003. Protesters held a demonstration at the end of the exhibition in March of 2004; an international coalition of 112 environmental organizations, including WWF, INCA, IRN, the Central and Eastern European Bankwatch Network, and Friends of the Earth International, called on private banks and international financial institutions not to provide any funds for the project. Protesters held protest camps andentered construction sites and stopped work for several hours throughout the summer of 2005 by chaining themselves to machinery and erecting a human blockade to prevent trucks from entering and exiting the site. The Stop! Group organized a benefit concert that was attended by more than 5,000 people( NVDA Database)
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
OtherThe rivers that feed the hydropower plant are fed themselves by one of Europe's largest glaciers. Since the dam and power plant were built, the paths of these highland rivers have changed. Valleys have been flooded by artificial lakes. Árni Finnsson, head of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association foresaw extensive sediment buildup in reservoirs, with high winds blowing dust onto vegetation and into settled areas when water levels were low. The surrounding areas are important habitats for geese and wild reindeer
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseStrengthening of participation
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.The construction of the dam at Kárahnjúkar was a pivotal moment in Iceland's growing backlash against environmental destruction, in this sense it contributed to the environmental movement but the dam and the smelter were built. Not a success.
Sources and Materials

International Rivers
[click to view]

A Statement from Kárahnjúkar Protest Camp
[click to view]

Tracy Mandel, The Dam Truth: Nitty-gritty
[click to view]

Dreamland - A Self-Help manual , a book by Andri Snær Magnason


(1) Technical specifications
[click to view]

(2) Non-violent database icelanders protest karahnjukar hydropower project
[click to view]

Rising Ecocide: Nests Swallowed by Water at Kárahnjúkar
[click to view]

Media Links

Iceland's Karahnjukar Dam, by Andrew Smith
[click to view]

Dreamland (Icelandic: Draumalandið) is a 2009 Icelandic documentary film about politics, environmental preservation and damming, focusing on The Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project and its environmental impact. The movie is based on the book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation by Andri Snær Magnason

Meta Information
Last update25/09/2014