Left High and Dry: African Communities Seek Justice for Harm Caused by Dams

Terri Hathaway
Friday, August 1, 2008

Kariba Dam, on the Zambezi River in what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe, was the engine for the African copper mining industry, generating wealth for colonialists, and then to spur development of the two countries after independence. It was the World Bank’s first dam project. It is also one of Africa's most notorious cases of a people wronged in the name of national development.

Today, it symbolizes Africans' quest for reparations for development-induced displacement, thanks to a home-grown alliance that is working to document the past wrongs and suggest ways forward for the affected communities.

Between 1954 and 1962, some 57,000 people – the entire population of Tonga people – were removed from their lands along the Zambezi River to make way for Kariba. The reservoir flooded the communities where for centuries these people had farmed, fished, worshipped, raised their children and buried their dead. They were resettled to poor lands with no development assistance, and left to fend for themselves.

Forced off their land before harvest, 1957 became known to the Tonga as “the year of eating bones.” Fifty years on, their lives have met a standstill in the dusty lands where the next generation is continuing the struggle to redress the problems wreaked by the dam on their communities. In a quest to restore their lives and find justice, the Tonga formed their own advocacy group in 2000, the Basilwizi Trust. Basilwizi sees itself as a culmination of numerous efforts by the affected people to be heard by the government authorities. They are working to define their needs, and to help the whole community gain skills to directly lobby decision-makers.

In 2005, Basilwizi conducted extensive research on the socio-economic status of the Tonga people. Their report states: “The Gwembe Tonga on the Zambian side and the Zimbabwean Tonga are one; but due to separation brought about by the dam, they are now considered different people. Their languages have become slightly different over the years. Some, especially on the Zimbabwean side, no longer speak Tonga, the language of their ancestors, due to dominance of other indigenous languages.” Basilwizi is now undertaking new activities to revive the Tonga culture, in order to preserve the language and to build local access to education. They are also focusing on food security and access to electricity, still lacking after 50 years.

The group is also calling on the World Bank and other parties involved in building the dam to bring justice to the Tonga. “Calls for reparation, coming many years after the displacement of these people from the land of their ancestors have not yielded any significant benefits,” observes Basilwizi in its recent report. “Such compensation could be in monetary terms, decommissioning of the dam, official recognition of past and current injustices suffered, or complete restoration of the ecosystems. A new dialogue to correct the wrongs committed should commence. The Tonga are … trying to find solutions to their predicament and to rise out of the imposed poverty. The perpetrators should not look at this as a social obligation but a realization that this could have been done better and so what economic, political and cultural programme can follow.”

Kariba may be one of the worst examples of forced resettlement for an African dam, but it is hardly the only case where those who sacrificed the most were treated poorly and left worse off. From the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, to Akosombo in Ghana, to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, and numerous other large dam projects across the continent, many Africans have been forcibly displaced or lost their natural resources because of dams. While this African legacy is far from settled, communities are seeking their justice in creative and steadfast ways.

South Africa has the most dams on the continent, and many of its 600 large dams have come at a great human cost. “Africans had no rights, no say in the decisions because of apartheid,” remembers Miriam Kibi, whose family was forced out to make way for Gariep and Vanderkloof dams. In 1913, unfair land laws saw 80% of the land handed over to white colonialists, just 13% of the population. Under the racist apartheid government, blacks were forcibly dislocated for dams without compensation. Because apartheid laws required blacks to have permits to enter city limits, dislocated blacks couldn’t move into urban areas. “We lost lots of property,” said Kibi. “No attempt was made to give us another roof over our heads. We had to squat on the side of the road.”

Through a national multi-stakeholder dialogue on dams, reparations were identified as a priority. “We need to get benefits out of the dams and we need to restore the dignity of our people,” says Kibi, who has also served as a representative for affected communities on the dialogue’s steering committee. While financial reparations for affected communities have all but been dismissed by the government, there is now a social audit underway for 10 dams in the country. But the audit’s slow start concerns affected communities, who say a lack of political will continues to stall dam-related reparations. Says Kibi, “It’s frustrating, and the momentum of the people starts to get lost.”

In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Inga 1 and 2 dams have lit up mining enterprises in Katanga and major urban areas as far as South Africa. The dams were built in the 1970s and 1980s without thorough environmental or social impact assessments and the communities say the dams have brought nothing good to them.

A report released in March by two Congolese NGOs found that compensation was never paid to communities harmed by the dams, and no local benefits provided. Health problems have increased, and water quality has decreased. People now often get skin rashes from bathing in the river. There is little access to health care. Upstream of the dams, fishermen’s catches have decreased sharply, causing their incomes to fall.

Today, the Inga 1 and 2 dams are facing an injection of financing to rehabilitate the projects so they produce more electricity (see page 14), and the communities want to make sure they are not left behind. As pointed out by the World Commission on Dams, "Opportunities to restore, improve and optimize benefits from existing large dams should be used as an entry point to address unmitigated social problems associated with the dams in that river basin." But the Inga affected communities have been threatened with further expulsion once again to make way for new Inga dams. Although they are preparing their demands for the World Bank, a key funder of the rehabilitation project, they are worried that any attempts to meet and discuss the issues will be violently shut down by local authorities. Already, one man from the affected area who wrote a letter about his rights has been threatened with arrest.

In northern Nigeria’s Hadeija-Nguru Wetlands, historical flood patterns upon which one million farmers, herders, and fishermen depend changed patterns after two dams were built, drying up seasonal river channels and causing homes and roads elsewhere to flood. Livelihoods of downstream communities were shattered, and years were spent accusing each other for the changes before enough work was done to come to a common understanding about the changing watershed. “Now the communities understand that the [Tiga and Challawa] dams are a main root cause of the changes,” said Dr. Idris Muslim, Director of Water Supply and Quality Control for Jigawa State. A Wetlands General Council was formed in recent years to help the communities tackle the problem and identify their needs. Interestingly, they are not seeking cash or other compensation. “They see justice as restoration of their wetlands. They are asking for the floods to be controlled, and to make water go where it used to,” said Muslim. Work is being done to initiate Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) committees in the five affected states and to work together, with community representation, to find comprehensive mitigation measures.

Unfortunately, the experience for those affected by Nigeria’s Kainji, Shiroro, and Jebba hydropower dams have not had such luck in garnering ongoing political support for their justice. Legislation known as HYPPADEC that provides for a benefit-sharing scheme with the communities passed both parliamentary houses, but needed presidential support to be signed into law. “It was in the spirit of dialogue that 4 state governors met in 2000 to deliberate on the plight of our communities living up and down stream of the hydroelectric power stations in the country,” wrote CAPP, a local NGO. “The National Assembly graciously passed the HYPPADEC bill into law as promised. However, Mr. President promised to visit affected areas before he finally gives assent to the bill.” Although a joyous visit occurred in 2003, “nothing has been heard or done about [HYPPADEC] while the communities continue to languish in neglect and deprivation.”

In Lesotho, two large dams have left the people of the rural Highlands communities struggling, despite the World Bank's best efforts to ensure that people were not left worse off by the giant Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). Working with the Transformation Resource Centre, a local NGO, the dam-affected communities have formed their own advocacy organization, Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD). Says SOLD's Mantsila Seleke, "The dam project is like Lesotho's diamond. We want to know how this diamond can be broken up so we can all have a little piece of it." Adds Mabusetsa Lenka of TRC, a longtime field worker with the dam-affected communities, "The project authority is only now beginning to realize that they should have started yesterday on restoring livelihoods. The affected communities have not been prepared for a life beyond compensation." SOLD will focus on trying to get more training for those who lost their livelihoods when the dam drowned their farms, and other help. "It's like we're trying to climb a very high mountain; we just want help reaching the top of this mountain," says Mrs. Seleke. "We would like the project authority to work cooperatively with these communities and help them develop projects that will bring them money, and help them solve their life problems." TRC recently published a book, "On the Wrong Side of Development: Lessons Learned from the LHWP," which they hope will help avoid such problems with future dams.

Lessons from the WCD
Dozens of new dams are proposed for Africa, and grassroots groups and affected communities are trying to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Proactive mechanisms for benefit-sharing can help reduce the risk of long-term problems down the line. Progressive legislation and government policy can also ensure less risk of injustice. But, as the WCD notes, it also requires the political will to make it happen.

The WCD states that, “a continuation of the legacy of inequity associated with many large dams is not only unacceptable, but unnecessary.” Examples of financial reparations made to Native Americans in the US shows that it is possible to rectify some outstanding issues. However, it also requires the financial investment to be able to rehabilitate, restore, and repair lives. The WCD calls for governments to spearhead reparations efforts for past dams. This is not yet happening in Africa. In the meantime, across Africa, communities left with a legacy of uncompensated impacts from large dams are finding their strength as survivors, and working to restore justice in their river basins.