Icelanders protest Karahnjukar Hydropower Project, 2000-2006

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Struggle against the project began in 2000 but leader Saving Iceland was not founded until 2004 and the majority of action took place with Saving Iceland's organizational support in 2005 and 2006
Location and Goals
Location Description: 
Central Highlands in East Iceland and capital Reykjavik
To prevent construction and operation of Karahnjukar hydropower plant and Alcoa's aluminum smelting plant and ensuing environmental destruction

In December of 2001, Iceland's Minister for the Environment Siv Fridleifsdottir overturned Iceland's National Planning Agency (NPA) decision to reject the Karahnjukar Hydropower Project on the grounds of major negative environmental impacts. The project called for the construction of one 190-meter high, 730-meter wide main dam in addition to eight auxiliary dams and 53 kilometers of headrace tunnels to supply electricity. The project, paid for by Landsvirkjun, Iceland's national power company, would exclusively provide power for the multinational Alcoa under a fifty-year contract. Alcoa is an American multinational aluminum smelting company. Fridleifsdottir's decision to overturn the NPA's decision led to widespread action against the project based on the environmental damage construction and operation of the dam would generate.

The more than $1 billion project would create a 57-square-mile reservoir by damming two large glacial rivers flowing from Europe's largest glacier, the Vatnajoekull. The dams would destroy a large portion of Iceland's highlands, including the Dimmugljufu canyon as well as several protected areas and important nesting grounds for reindeer and pink-footed geese. Iceland's Central Highlands make up one of Europe' largest (previously) pristine wilderness areas. Additional environmental impacts will be felt due to the hydrological changes wrought by the dam's construction and operation. These include, but are not limited to, increased erosion, changes in water temperature and turbidity that would impact aquatic life, and destruction of habitat, especially breeding grounds and migration routes. Because of these consequences, the original proposal for the Karahnjukar Hydropower Project was rejected in 2001. Led by Landsvirkjun, proponents of the project argued that it carried enough economic benefits, including local jobs and contracts from large multinationals, to outweigh the environmental risks. Additionally, Alcoa and Landsvirkjun claimed that the project would help combat climate change because the smelting plant would use the most efficient and environmentally friendly practices available and that the energy generated by the dam would be renewable hydropower. These statements should be evaluated in the context of the grave environmental degradation produced by aluminum smelting, including generation of waste and emissions of numerous greenhouse gases.

Opponents to the dam's construction argued that Iceland was sacrificing its environmental wilderness and beauty to attract multinationals. An environmentally oriented political party in Iceland, the Leftist-Green Movement, strongly opposed the dam in parliamentary discussions and worked within the legal and political system to oppose the project. Nonviolent action began in 2000 while the NPA was reviewing the project proposal. Friends of the Environment circulated a petition against the dam that received 45,000 signatures before it was presented to both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Industry.

After the NPA's decision was overturned, numerous declarations were made against the project by celebrities such as Icelandic singer Bjork (whose mother protested by completing two separate fasts) and NGOs such as Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In 2003, the writer Elísabet Jökulsdóttir spoke out in dramatic fashion against the dam when she grabbed a microphone during a domestic flight and declared her opposition to the dam's construction because of its grave environmental costs. Other actions in 2003 included an online campaign to send emails to Icelandic elected officials and executive employees of Alcoa and Landsvirkjun, organized by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association with international support from the WWF Arctic Program and the International Rivers Network. Also in 2003, sixty-three candles were lit as part of a demonstration outside Reykjavik's parliamentary buildings. Fifty-four of the candles were blown out to represent the fifty-four, out of 63, MPs who did not vote against the project. Other actions included spray-painting slogans such as "Stop Destruction Now" on the homes and offices of important officials and energy executives in Reykjavik. Lastly, 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. Continued international support came in late 2004 when Senator Bob Brown from the Australian Greens and British MP Sue Doughty stated their opposition to the project based on the environmental impacts.

In 2004, Saving Iceland, a global network that facilitates nonviolent action against projects involving heavy industry in Iceland, was founded. Starting in 2004, Saving Iceland organized speak outs and demonstrations in Reykjavik that attracted more than 1,000 people. Later, Saving Iceland became the primary organizer behind nonviolent action against the dam. During the summer months of 2005 and 2006, the global network, along with Iceland's leading environmental activist Gudmundur Pall Olafsson, organized numerous direct action protests and demonstrations against the project, although construction had already begun. Thousands of environmental activists gathered in protest camps on or near the sites of the Karahnjukar dam and reservoir. Small groups of protesters entered 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. There are some reports of police action against these protesters although it was not possible to substantiate statements about violence and intimidation being used to remove the protesters.

Also during the summers of protest, demonstrators disrupted the 10th World Aluminum Conference in Reykjavik, dumping green yogurt on executives from multinationals Alcoa and Bechtel in protest of discussions on the "greening" of aluminum smelters in Iceland. In June of 2006, Saving Iceland was joined by the The Stop! Group, an organization that fights aluminum smelters and power plants in Iceland. The Stop! Group organized a benefit concert, raising financial support for opposition to the dam. The sold-out concert was attended by more than 5,000 people and featured artists Bjork, Mugison, Damon Albarn, Damien Rice and more, who all voiced support of the environmental activists fighting the dam's construction. Another protest concert was held two months later featuring Sigur Ros (footage of this concert is available in Sigur Ros' concert tour documentary Heima). As the summer protest camps ended in 2006, Omar Ragnarsson, a reporter for Iceland's National Broadcasting Service, called for a protest against the dam and published an eight-page supplement in the newspaper Morgunbladid in September. In the supplement, Ragnarsson invited specific individuals to take a tour of the area damaged by the dam. Ragnarsson continued his protest against the dam by posting photographs of the site before, during, and after construction of the dam took place. Finally, twelve thousand people marched in protest against the project in September of 2006.

Despite the nonviolent action conducted by Saving Iceland, the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, and thousands of international environmental activists to prevent the Karahnjukar hydropower plant, dam construction was completed, the Halslon reservoir was filled in late 2006, and electricity was first generated in April of 2007. Although the Karahnjukar Hydropower Project and the Alcoa smelting plant were both constructed and are operational at the time of this writing, they are still sharply criticized by environmentalists as detrimental to the highlands as well as being criticized for not fulfilling the promise of easing local unemployment by providing jobs. Saving Iceland continues to fight against dams and heavy industry with its 2007 Summer of International Dissent Against Heavy Industry, which brought thousands of environmental activists together in Iceland and has influenced similar campaigns in Trinidad and Tobago and India.

Research Notes
Saving Iceland continues to fight against dams and heavy industry with its 2007 Summer of International Dissent Against Heavy Industry, which brought thousands of environmental activists together in Iceland and has influenced similar campaigns in Trinidad and Tobago and India. (2)
BBC News. "Bjork's mother on hunger strike." BBC News World Edition. 12 Oct. 2002. <>.

Bird, Maryann. "The Price of Wealth." Time Magazine. 08 Aug. 2004. <,9171,678570,00.html>.

Bosshard, Peter. "Karahnjukar - a Project on Thin Ice." International Rivers Network. June 2003. <>.

DeMuth, Susan. "Power Driven." The Guardian. 29 Nov. 2003. Web. 2 June 2011. <>.

Iceland Nature Conservation Association. <>.

Jakobsdóttir, Steinunn. "Best of Karahnjukar: Reviewing the dam project that split a nation." The Reykjavik Grapevine. 6 Oct. 2006. <>.

Jones, Ken. "Protest at Highland smelter over Iceland mega-dam." Aberdeen Press and Journal. 26 Oct. 2005: 13.

Karahnjukar Hydropower Project. <>.

Nikolov, Paul F. "Protesting Karahnjukar: Same ends, new means." The Reykjavik Grapevine. 13 Jan. 2006. <>.

Saving Iceland. "A Statement from Karahnjukar Protest Camp." 19 Jul. 2005. <>.

Saving Iceland. "Summer of International Dissent Against Heavy Industry." 9 Jul. 2007. <>.

World Wildlife Fund. "NGOs call on banks not to fund large dam and smelter project in Iceland. 13 Mar. 2003. <>.

Additional Notes: 
Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason published a book and then directed a movie based on his work, titled Dreamland - A Self Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, which can be viewed for more information on the environmental history of Iceland.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nathalie Schils, 12/06/2011