The government launched the National Program of Dams with High Hydroelectric Potential (Programa Nacional de Barragens com Elevado Potencial Hidroelétrico, PNBEPH) in 2007. The 12 new mega-dams - 10 from the PNBEPH plus two more (Baixo Sabor and Ribeiradio) - correspond to 8% of total installed capacity and 4% of electricity production, and are capable of responding to 1% of the country’s total energy demand.
At that time, part of the national strategy for renewable energy was to combine hydro and wind power. The new dams were to be constructed using reversible technology, as the combination of pumped storage systems plays an important role in preventing wind power from being wasted.
Environmental organizations, academics, researchers, and civil society movements, among others, came together to protest against this plan. Their main criticisms were the disregard for public participation in the decision-making process and the lack of importance given to the cultural and environmental values of the sites selected for construction.
These movements were undoubtedly empowered by the successful fight against the Foz Côa dam (see the description of the case in this Atlas). There, with the support of political parties and national and international organizations that share environmental and cultural concerns, the local population was able to stop the dam from being built and preserve the world heritage site threatened by the project. There are cases, however, such as the fight against the Sabor dam, which did not succeed in halting the project in its tracks. The Sabor dam was built , despite intense opposition led by the Plataforma Sabor Livre (Free the Sabor River Coalition). Home to a diversity of fauna and endangered species, it is the “last wild river” in Portugal.
This coalition carried out protests, sent complaints to the European Commission, and even boycotted the biodiversity fund managed by Energias de Portugal (EDP), the concession holder. However, it was not enough to stop the construction underway and the dam became operational in 2014.
Similarly, the construction of the Foz Tua dam in the Alto Douro wine region, which is recognized as a world heritage site by Unesco, is facing strong opposition. Founded in 2013, the Platforma “Salvar o Tua” (Save Tua River Coalition) has received international attention by acting on various fronts. It brings together non-governmental organizations and people from diverse backgrounds. It has filed various lawsuits against this project, organized information campaigns and created artistic and cultural projects to give this whole process greater visibility. In 2013, the coalition submitted to parliament a petition called “Manifesto for the Tua valley”.
In 2015, this manifesto, which is still online and has more than 7,300 signatures, was discussed in parliament. On the day of this discussion, some of the signatories travelled to the assembly to protest inside the plenary, where the proposal to suspend work on the Foz Tua dam was voted down by the majority of political parties.
In addition to these cases, there were also conflicts involving the Ribeiradio-Ermida dam on the Vouga River, and another four hydropower plants in Gouvães, Padroselos, Alto Tâmega, and Daivões. Once again, non-governmental organizations and the population participated in and organized protests and petitions, and supported the position of certain political parties.
The broader movement against mega-dams in Portugal succeeded in showing that many people did not support the claim that the dams were being built in “national public interest”, used to justify the approval of PNBEPH.
Portugal has also witnessed protests by NGOs against new mini-hydropower plants on the Mondego and Paiva Rivers due to their substantial environmental impacts. Environmental groups and other civil society organizations were able to stop both projects. The main reasons for suspending the projects was the failure to comply with licensing and contract procedures: failure to meet the requirements on a minimum water flow in the Paiva River; incompatibility of the fish ladders built in the Mondego River, and the broader changes they would bring, which included, in both cases, the expropriation of people's houses.
In early 2016, the PNBEPH was revised. Seven dams were part of the original plan:Foz-Tua (Tua River), Fridão, Alto Tâmega/Vidago, Daivões (Tagus River), Gouvães (Louredo River), Girabolhos (Mondego River), and Alvito (Ocreza River). Only four dams will be built. Authorities cancelled the Girabolhos and Alvito dam projects and postponed the decision on the construction of the Fridão dam (Tagus River) for three years. The final deadline for the construction of the dams is 2023.
In general, the organizations defend that no more dams should be built in Portugal and the cancellation of public subsidies for hydroelectric dam projects. Municipal leaders in municipalities near the dams, on the other hand, protested against the decision to reduce the number of dams, claiming that it will result in the loss of potential profits and benefits for local businesses.