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Thjórsárver reservoir, Iceland


According to Saving Iceland, the Thjórsárver wetlands of central Iceland are a unique ecosystem. Located in Iceland’s interior, the wetlands stretch 120 square kilometres from the Hofsjökull glacier in the northern highlands to surrounding volcanic deserts and are characterized by remarkable biodiversity. A description on the World Wildlife Fund website points not only to the variance of the landscape itself—“tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds”—but also to the area’s unique plant and birdlife. It is registered as a Ramsar site.

Thjórsárver is fed by Iceland’s longest river, Thjórsá. BirdLife International have recognized the Thjórsárver wetlands as an Important Bird Area, primarily because of its importance for the Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrynchus).

The wetlands are also a hotspot for controversy. The issue is whether the building of reservoirs and other infrastructure for hydroelectric power development within the wetlands should go ahead. The Thjórsá River is vital not only to the Thjórsárver wetlands, but also to Iceland’s hydroelectric industry.

In the 1960s, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, announced plans to construct a 200km2 reservoir that would have inundated almost all of the wetlands, including the breeding grounds of the Pink-footed Goose. In response to public opposition, the project was abandoned in 1981 and the Icelandic government established the Thjórsárver Nature Reserve in part of the wetlands. This protection is not absolute however.

Accordingly, Landsvirkjun proposed a 30m-high dam with a smaller reservoir covering some 65km2. Facing mounting criticism from both scientists and the local population, Landsvirkjun lowered its ambitions again, and is now proposing a 24m-high dam with a 32.5km2 reservoir.

Conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association have shown concern for the loss of habitat.

Originally, the energy from Thjórsárver would have been used for the expansion of the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter at Straumsvik, Hafnafjordur. However, in 2007 a local referendum there ruled against the expansion.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Thjórsárver reservoir, Iceland
State or province:Thjórsárver region, Icelandic Highlands
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 commodities:Aluminum/Bauxite

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The project which was to build one or more hydroelectric dams for the aluminium smelting industry in the canyon from the Hofsjökull glacier to the Thjorsa River. The plan has been rejected.

The wetlands cover 120km2, 37,500 ha of the total area has been declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Project area:12,000
Start of the conflict:1970
Company names or state enterprises:Landsvirkjun from Iceland
Relevant government actors:Reykjavík City council (who then owned 45% of Landsvirkjun)
International and Finance InstitutionsRamsar convention
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Saving Iceland
IUCN, Birdlife International, Iceland Nature Conservation Association

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Project cancelled
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:It is a success for conservationism (Ramsar site, IUCN, the local Saving Iceland group) against the interest of the aluminium smelting multinational industry.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Hydropower Development in Iceland: Damage to habitats and species of European importance

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Saving Iceland

Iceland Review - Possible enlargement of Thjórsárver reserve

Iceland review - Extension of Iceland Highland Reserve Postponed

Other documents

Source: Saving Iceland

Meta information

Last update11/08/2019



Source: Saving Iceland