Debate Over Dams on Africa’s Zambezi River

Pete Browne
Monday, October 19, 2009

Originally published in Green Inc. (New York Times energy blog)

In a study released in the Mozambican capital of Maputo on Monday, two environmental organizations — International Rivers and Justica Ambiental — say plans to build the Mphanda Nkuwa hydroelectric dam on the Zambezi, a river spanning six countries, could result in South Africa’s having to choose between light and water.

The Mphanda Nkuwa dam site in Mozambique is 35 miles downstream of the Cahora Bassa dam, described by the United Nations as possibly the least environmentally acceptable major dam project in Africa.

Both dams will combine to affect the Zambezi basin, home to an estimated 40 million people.

“Mphanda Nkuwa will limit Cahora Bassa’s ability to address the environmental impacts of regulating water flows,” Daniel Ribeiro, a spokesman for Justica Ambiental, based in Maputo, said in an e-mail message. “Mphanda Nkuwa could cement the current problems that are killing the Zambezi ecosystem,” he added.

The technical unit tasked by Mozambique’s Ministry of Energy with putting the Mphanda Nkuwa project into effect has said that the project will have no identifiable impact on the Zambezi delta and fisheries in the Indian Ocean.

In response, Mr. Ribeiro said, “this ignores the fact that the dam will be a sediment trap and will block the Luia catchment – an area of 11,000 square miles. This is one of the few remaining unregulated catchment areas on the Zambezi.” He added, “Its contribution to the ecosystem is not well known, and therefore potential impacts cannot be accurately addressed.”

The financing of the project is unclear.

Separate reports suggest Exim Bank, owned by China, along with a consortium composed of the Brazilian construction company Camargo Correia, the Mozambican investment company Energia Capital and EDM, Mozambique’s publicly owned electricity company, will all contribute to the cost, estimated at $2 billion to $3.5 billion.

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned power company, will consume 90 percent of the 1,500 megawatts from the new dam. The remaining 10 percent will go to Mozambique.

According to Mark Hankins, an independent energy expert who wrote the study, power destined for the Mozambique market – where 80 percent of the population does not have access to electricity – “must first be exported to Eskom, which in turn sells the power back to southern Mozambique at an increased rate.”

“There are serious technical, financial and national security implications of this,” Mr. Hankins continued. “Africa’s power grid loses twice as much electricity during transmission as do more modern systems in other parts of the world, and those losses can equal 2 percent of G.D.P. annually.”

In an interview for NAN News Network, Mozambique’s energy minister, Salvador Namburete, said the country’s enormous hydro-electric power potential meant that it should be selling large amounts of power to other Southern African nations.

Environmental groups disagree.

“It’s time we address our own energy needs,” Anabela Lemos, the director of Justica Ambiental, said in a statement. “Clean, decentralized energy for all should be the top priority, not damming the Zambezi to support energy-hogging industry and cities in South Africa.”