Returning to the Zambezi After 20 Years

Jason Rainey
Along side the Zambezi River
Alongside the Zambezi River
Photo by Lori Pottinger

It’s been 20 years to the month since I was last bobbing down the swift current of the Zambezi River. The rafting companies that earned a living plying the whitewater below Victoria Falls knew those Class 5 rapids so well, they even placed a photographer where I – and about five others – were launched out the front of our raft and into the river. As a small orange speck floating in the torrent of the Zambezi, I recall being surprisingly calm and at peace in surrendering to the flow of the river. A minute later the whitewater leveled, and as we pulled ourselves back onto the raft, our adrenalin-fueled talk was all about this mighty Zambezi River. Ah, to be deep in the canyon, surrounded by the unrelenting roar of big water in motion, and fully immersed in the river’s wild nature!

At that time, I couldn’t have predicted that 20 years later I’d be part of a fight to spare that reach of river from the destructive forces of yet another proposed megadam in this middle reach of the Zambezi – a 2,500 km river shared by eight southern African nations. 

Last month I returned to southern Africa to join International Rivers’ Africa Program Director, Rudo Sanyanga, for a series of strategy meetings focused on the current status and future prognosis for the Zambezi River. Rudo has established International Rivers’ office in Pretoria, South Africa, yet she is a Zimbabwean who carried out aquatic ecology research for around 20 years on the Zambezi River and the Kariba Dam – a megadam built over 60 years ago that creates the largest (by volume) artificial reservoir in the world. Kariba Dam is known for its notorious social impacts on the Tonga people who lived in the Kariba Valley prior to the dam inundation, and the environmental devastation caused by holding back so much of the Zambezi’s flow.

Rudo had a full schedule for me during my brief visit to the region. At the University of Pretoria, we presented to academics, students and government officials a summary of research conducted by hydrologist Richard Beilfuss and his report published by International Rivers that details the climate change-induced economic and ecological risks of new large hydropower dams on the Zambezi. In the report, Dr. Beilfuss notes the great variability in climate and precipitation patterns in the historic record of the Zambezi, and demonstrates how climate and run-off is likely to become even more variable and unpredictable over the next 50 years. It is in this context of climate and investment risk that we assessed the two proposed large dams that, if built, would silence a roughly 50-km reach of the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls – by Batoka Dam – and another 40-km reach between the Cahora Bassa Dam and the city of Tete in western Mozambique that would be silenced by the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam. The combined impacts of these two, plus the big dams that came before them, would desiccate the expansive, biologically rich and productive Zambezi Delta – the largest estuary wetland complex on the east coast of the African continent.

Jason met with partners from JA! and Greenpeace-Africa on his trip to Mozambique in March, 2013.
Jason met with partners from JA! and Greenpeace-Africa on his trip to Mozambique in March, 2013.

While I would have enjoyed a "reunion” visit to the Zambezi River itself, the decision to add more dams to this river – specifically the proposed Mphanda Nkuwa Dam in Mozambique – is largely driven by the political and economic centers of South Africa. As such, my trip focused on meeting a wide range of individuals and organizations based in Pretoria and Johannesburg to better understand how these proposed hydropower dams fit into the energy planning of the South Africa’s state-owned monopoly utility, ESKOM, and the Southern Africa Power Pool.

  • I learned from our friends at Greenpeace-Africa that they're campaigning against ESKOM’s plan to build two of the world’s largest coal plants in the Limpopo region of the country. They’ve investigated the impacts of the proposed projects in terms of community displacement, carbon emissions and the water consumption required of these plants sited in an arid and already water-stressed region of the country.
  • I met with allies from EarthLife working to bring attention to the short-sighted folly of six proposed nuclear power plants in South Africa.
  • I visited Justiça Ambiental (JA!), our longstanding partners in Mozambique who are on the frontlines resisting the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam, where 80% of the electricity would be exported to urban and industrial centers in South Africa.

Research that International Rivers supported years ago demonstrates that Mozambique can meet its domestic energy needs without another large dam – and in fact that there would be many benefits to building a more decentralized energy system for meeting the nation’s needs. 

Greenpeace Africa also has produced a roadmap – the Advanced Energy [R]evolution – for South Africa to transform its energy sector through efficiency, demand-side management and deployment of on-grid and off-grid technologies such as wind, geothermal, tidal and solar electricity generation.

The recommendations that emerge from our Risky Climate for Southern Africa Hydro report call for basin-wide planning, diversifying the regional grid to reduce hydropower dependency, and prioritizing energy investments that increase climate resilience at the community and regional scale.

Next year South Africa will celebrate 20 years since the election of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected leader of the new South Africa. In my conversations with South Africans, there seemed to be a universal musing – and concern – about what the next 20 years will hold. Energy choices seem to be a major flashpoint decision. Will the nation continue with the inertia of last century’s destructive large-scale energy projects, or make a concerted effort to incentivize a renewable energy revolution? Water scarcity is also a major concern for South Africans, yet the government continues to promote energy choices that use water intensively or pollute the limited water sources, forcing the country to look across its borders to meet its domestic water needs.

For the sake of uplifting those most impoverished and left in the dark throughout southern Africa, for building resilience into stressed economic and ecological systems, and for the protection of the Zambezi River and the innumerable benefits that a natural river provides, International Rivers will continue to add our value to the movement, weaving together the campaigns, programs and partnerships that are necessary to realize long-term prosperity for the region.

Monday, April 8, 2013