Eskom Eyes the Zambezi

Lori Pottinger and Anabela Lemos
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Power Demand Lead to Another Destructive Dam on Southern Africa’s Most Heavily Dammed River?

Originally published in groundWork magazine, South Africa.

It’s a long and often bumpy ride from Maputo to the quiet villages perched above the Zambezi near Mphanda Nkuwa, a gorge whose name means “the scream of the passing water”. We drive through a lush valley awash with newly leafing spring-green trees and wildflowers on our way to Chinangwe. As we slow for villages, young girls come over to sell us mangoes, and boys to gawk at our big stack of camping gear. Finally, we arrive at the river and set up camp in the shade of a huge baobab tree. Here, where the government of Mozambique is pushing to build a large dam just downstream from the huge Cahora Bassa Dam, life is slow, hot and hard, but with a generous river running through it.

Girl with fish, Zambezi river, Mozambique
Girl with fish, Zambezi river, Mozambique
Lori Pottinger
Our small posse of activists, hailing from Maputo, Cape Town, Lisbon, and California, are making a field visit so we can hear first-hand what local people think about the coming dam project. Despite the difficulties of daily life in this remote place with no modern services, no one we talk to says they welcome the huge project. They all know people who were displaced for Cahora Bassa, and they all know how badly that turned out for them.

“We’re very poor people, but here we have the basics,” one older man says. “We can’t tell the government not to build the dam, but we do want to know where we’ll be resettled. It’s very important that we are given at least the same conditions as we have here. Without that guarantee, we will not leave here.” Others were more blunt. “I do not agree with the building of this dam,” a young man told us. “I don’t believe we will see any benefits from it.”

Africa’s large dams have consistently been built at the expense of rural communities, who have been forced to sacrifice their lands and livelihoods to them yet have reaped few benefits. In Southern Africa, large hydro dams from Angola to Zimbabwe have brought considerable social, environmental and economic damage, and have left a trail of "development–induced poverty" in their wake. Project benefits have been consistently overstated and inequitably shared. Large hydropower dams reinforce centralized power grids, which disproportionately benefit industry and higher income groups, and widen income disparities (and energy inequities) between the poor and the elite.

Mphanda Nkuwa is likely to forcibly resettle at least 1,400 people in the reservoir area, and affect 200,000 or more people living downstream, where changes in water flow will affect livelihoods in numerous ways. But these villagers’ fears about their futures are not the top concern for the engineers at UTIP, the Mozambique dam agency. “You NGOs should not create false expectations with affected people. This dam is a public-private partnership, and it has to be profitable,” said a representative of the Technical Unit for Implementation of Hydropower Projects (UTIP), the government's hydropower agency, at a public meeting on the project in Maputo last November. “We can’t give everything for free to communities; we can’t solve all their problems. If we could, I’d move to the Mphanda area myself.”

Warming World, Drying Rivers?
If the dam is built, it may also mean a lost opportunity for restoring the Zambezi Delta and improving fisheries, wildlife habitat, and agriculture with more-natural flows from Cahora Bassa Dam. But Mphanda Nkuwa will require Cahora Bassa to operate according to its current destructive release patterns, and make the restoration project very difficult. The dam could also reduce the natural flow of river sediments, which are critical to the delta’s health.

Climate risk is another problem that is being ignored by project planners. Climate change is making hydropower less dependable, and the wise use of water resources even more critical. The Zambezi basin is known for its climatic variability. Climate change is expected to increase the variability of rainfall in the region (increasing the risk of both worse droughts and floods), thus making hydropower even riskier. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated it has “very high confidence” that Southern Africa will “suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change”, while a recent University of Cape Town study shows small decrease in rainfall could cause drastic reductions in river flows in Africa, including the Zambezi. To date, no large hydropower dam has been designed to take into account climate change scenarios on the bottom line, and Mphanda will certainly not be an exception.

Outside Influences

Like many huge infrastructure projects in Africa, this one is heavily dependent on outside forces. Without the help of China, Brazil, Eskom and maybe even the World Bank, the project would not get off the drawing board.

The Mozambique government has listed Mphanda Nkuwa as a preferred project for many years. It had tried a number of times to lure investors to support the US$2.3 billion project, but was unable to get any serious interest until earlier this year, when China’s Export-Import Bank stepped forward with a financial commitment. Now, the 1,500MW dam is said to be far along, though the government is keeping all information about the project close to its chest, leaving NGOs in the dark.

There is concern that China will ignore the serious social and environmental impacts of the project. China says it does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. China's African Policy of January 2006 stresses that China “respects African countries’ independent choice of the road of development,” and will “increase assistance to African nations with no political strings attached.”

Eskom is another key player in Mphanda Nkuwa because Mozambique cannot use most of the electricity the dam is expected to produce. Business Report magazine states: “Eskom is unlikely to invest in [the dam]. Rather, it would negotiate a long-term power purchasing agreement , and the Mozambican government would raise finance to build the power plants… There will certainly be hard bargaining over the price.” A previous power-purchase deal between Eskom and Mozambique was a tense one, because for years Eskom enjoyed below-market rates for electricity from Cahora Bassa. Like the Mozambique agencies involved in the dam, Eskom has been mostly uncommunicative with NGOs who have contacted them with concerns about the dam.

A Better Way?
The government is not planning to study alternatives to the dam project. There is little awareness within Mozambique's electricity sector either of the growing number of viable, sustainable energy solutions now taking off elsewhere in the world, or the need for “no regrets” energy planning that will ensure Mozambique is able to adapt to a changing climate. There is no process to conduct a grid-wide analysis that would evaluate the various energy options appropriate for the region as a whole.

The most readily available, lowest-risk and lowest-cost way to add watts to the grid is energy efficiency. South Africa is currently one of the most energy-intensive economies in the world, and there is much room for improvement in efficiencies. In 2002, Eskom announced that it could reduce energy demand by up to 11,000 megawatts with energy efficiency measures and "demand-side management" (DSM) programs.

There are other good options too, for adding power to the grid in South Africa without destroying rivers in Mozambique. There is high untapped potential for wind, solar and ocean power, among others. All of these options are more costly than coal, and Eskom has moved at a glacial pace to develop them. But like coal, large hydros such as Mphanda Nkuwa have a long list of “added costs” that are never included in the project balance sheet. The people, plants and animals of the Zambezi Valley should not be forced to subsidize large industrial plants and South African cities with their lives and livelihoods.

Given the reluctance of the Mozambique government to seriously analyze energy needs and options before moving forward with the dam, our organizations are undertaking a review of research into potential “market-ready” green energy alternatives to the dam, both in South Africa and Mozambique. We believe it is critical to devise an energy plan for the region that will "first, do no harm" to water resources, whose value will continue to increase as climate change's impacts grow.

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