Official Position by Himba on Epupa Dam

Saturday, February 7, 1998
An official submissions to the Namibian government on behalf of the Traditional Leadership of the Kunene Region, in relation to the proposed construction of a hydropower scheme on the Lower Kunene River.


The Traditional Leadership of the Kunene Region and members of the communities they represent ("the community") view the proposed construction of a Hydropower Scheme on the lower Cunene River at either the Epupa Falls site or the Baines site with grave concern.

Generally the community recognises the important role of the Government of the Republic of Namibia in developing the country to provide for the basic needs of the people. The Kunene Region itself is in great need of Government attention as far as infrastructural development is concerned and we would appeal to the Government to jointly with the political and traditional leadership of our Region to meet to discuss a development strategy for the future. We believe that in terms of democratic principles to which the Government has committed itself and in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution that any such development plan must be discussed and jointly agreed upon by all the stakeholders concerned.

Over the past three years there have been many meetings with the Government, and in particular the Ministry of Mines and energy, Nampower, Namang and the consultants working as part of the Feasibility Study team with the directly affected community ("the Epupa community") and other stakeholders to discuss the Scheme. In those discussions the community has always adopted the same approach, namely that they are fearful of a large dam being built at either the Epupa or Baines sites and they have explained the reasons for these fears, which we again set out below.


Should a hydropower dam be built at Epupa or Baines our Himba communities living there would suffer serious impacts to their livelihoods and way of life. The most important of these can be summarised as follows:

2.1 Loss of Land

The inundation of approximately 190 square kilometres of land on the Namibian side of the Cunene River (should the dam be constructed at the Epupa site) would in our view constitute the single most serious loss to the Epupa community. As pastoral herders the Himba community is in need of extensive rangelands in order to raise their cattle and already there is a shortage of suitable land. To take land away from the Epupa community to make way for the dam would put serious pressure on the Himba livelihood in the area.

The Epupa site would also flood 110 permanent dwellings, as opposed to 15 such dwellings at Baynes. Although the Himba are nomadic, there are families who are very well–established in certain areas as well as others who visit these areas on a regular basis. The Epupa site would have an impact on about 1000 "permanent users" and 5000 "occasional users", as compared to 100 "permanent users" and 2000 "occasional users" at Baynes.

These losses would produce a ripple effect which would multiply their impact. We are advised that it is estimated that the cattle displaced by a dam at Epupa on the Namibian side of the river alone will require some 17 500 hectares of grazing elsewhere at all times, and an additional 70 000 hectares of grazing elsewhere in times of scarcity –– without even taking into account the needs of the small stock which also use the river basin. The pressure placed on other grazing areas will be enormous. So, although only about 1000 people will actually be displaced if the river basin is flooded, the dam would affect the drought strategies of about 10 000 Himba (on both sides of the river) and place additional strain on countless others who would experience difficulties finding alternative grazing. This could lead to the Epupa community being increasingly dependent on the Government for financial support and social welfare.

There is no indication how exactly the Himba would be compensated should this occur and where alternative land would be found given the dire shortage of land in the region. We are advised that international experience has shown in other parts of the world where such projects have been undertaken that the relocation of people has always led to their impoverishment. Forced relocation also does not take into account the enormous loss in respect of spiritual connectedness with the land.

2.2 Loss of Riverine Resources

During times of drought, several survival strategies come into play for the Himba. Restricted grazing areas are opened up, and many households shift closer to the riverine forests along the Cunene. Grazing may be bad there as well, but the river provides a reliable water supply which decreases stress on the livestock and reduces their food requirements. The Faidherbia albida trees on the riverbanks also provide an abundance of pods which serve as nutritious fodder for goats. The palm trees along the river, which are not very susceptible to low rainfall, provide a crucial source of "omarunga nuts" which are a crucial food resource for the Epupa community in dry seasons or in times of drought.

The inundation of the Cunene basin at Epupa would destroy the riverine forests. It would result in the loss of an annual crop of hundreds of tonnes of the palm nuts and would in addition bring an end to gardening in the fertile soils along the riverbank.

It is these resources that were crucial 1981 drought. Even though herds were devastated, few families dropped out of pastoralism, there were few famine–related deaths, and herds were slowly restocked without Government support or subsidy.

2.3 Loss of Gardens

About 75% of Himba households engage in some agricultural activity during the course of the year to produce supplementary food, with the alluvial soils along the Cunene being prime garden spots. Maize is typically intercropped with various types of pumpkins and melons. These gardens are particularly important for poorer households who find it difficult to survive off of the resources from their herds.

2.4 Disappearance of Wildlife

The community is particularly attached to the wildlife that occurs in the project area. Requests have in fact been made by the community to restock the area with wildlife, some of which is dependent on the riverine resources in time of drought.

As a consequence of the loss of land and riverine resources the construction of a dam would bring, the wildlife that occurred there would move elsewhere and would be lost as a community resource to be used in a sustainable way both for hunting and the promotion of eco–tourism in the area.

2.5 Inundation of Ancestral Grave Sites

A dam at Epupa would flood 160 graves, while 15 graves would be flooded if a dam were to be built at the Baynes site. For the Himba, a grave is not just the location of the physical remains of a deceased person –– it is a focal point for defining identity, social relationships and relationships with the land, as well as being a centre for important religious rituals. The preference for riverine locations is partly a practical one –– alluvial soils are usually deeper and easier to dig. But riverine areas are also heavily loaded with emotion, as the points where communities congregate, the starting points of the annual cattle migrations, the places where people struggled to survive droughts, and the sites of graves of other family members. The river courses and the stories which are associated with them are common subjects of Himba praise songs.

Because graves demonstrate a continuity of settlement, they determine the influence of the "owner" of the land. The "owner" of a particular area is usually the oldest male member of a family which has been present there for generations. He does not normally have the right to exclude others entirely, but he will usually have the power to prevent outsiders from placing an unreasonable burden on scarce resources, and he will have an important say in communal decisions. The "owner" of the land will found his claim for political power on the numerous graves of generations of ancestors in the area. A family with only two or three generations of graves in a certain place will be "outsiders" who were allowed to use the land but have no right to change patterns of land tenure or to represent the interests of the area to those outside of it. Those who can demonstrate the longest connection with the land will have the strongest say over key land–related matters such as rights of access and control over resources. Because graves are so important in the land tenure system, senior elders can recall the location and identity of even the most ancient graves.

For example, in debates about issues such as naming a chief, permitting a trader into the area, or taking a stand on a development such as the Epupa dam, the Himba will point to the number of their ancestral graves as the major indicator of their right to influence a decision. Speakers will ask rhetorically, "Whose ancestral graves are older, ours or theirs?" The key point is not the physical fact of the graves themselves, but the connection between the graves, the family’s history and the community’s system of land tenure and decision–making. This connection cannot possibly be preserved if graves are relocated. When told that the Epupa dam will flood large numbers of grave sites, many Himba have asked, "Who will then know who is owning the land?"

For the Himba in the Epupa area the destruction of ancestral graves constitutes a major objection to the proposed dam. We wish to state clearly that Himba culture would be at risk if the ancestral graveyards along the Kunene are inundated. Although there have been some suggestions that Himba graves could be exhumed and moved, we believe that relocation will destroy the significance of the graves just as much as flooding them would.

2.6 Barrier Effect of Dam

The Himba live on both sides of the Cunene River and have families that are separated by the river. They accordingly regularly cross the river to visit relatives or to conduct business on the other side of the river.

A dam at Epupa will result in the loss of five traditional river crossings which will constitute a major social impact and in places where at present the river can be crossed in a few minutes, Himba will have to walk as far as 30 kilometres to get to theother side of the dam.

2.7 Threats to Health of People and the Environment

The Epupa site is expected to produce higher incidences of malaria and bilharzia (schistosomiasis), a disease caused by a parasite associated with still or slow–flowing water. The influx of a labour force from other areas will probably lead to the spread of sexually–transmitted diseases, including HIV which has been up to now absent from the local Himba communities.

Attention should also be given to the blackfly, an insect which often proliferates below dam structures and can cause stock deaths. This pest could have a devastating effect on Himba herds, but it has not been considered in the feasibility study. Another issue which is inadequately addressed is the possibility that algae could thrive in the reservoir, releasing toxic chemicals which will give the water an unpleasant odour and taste, and prevent the establishment of fisheries in the reservoir.

2.8 Overcrowding of Area

We are advised that construction of a dam at either site will require about 1000 workers (450 drawn from Namibia, 450 from Angola and 100 expatriates). Their numbers would be increased by family members, traders and an informal sector. A reasonable estimate is a construction town of at least 5000 inhabitants on the Angolan side of the river.

One likely result is that some of the newcomers would want to invest in livestock herds of their own, increasing local pressure by competing for scarce grazing. Aside from trade in cattle, the benefits of the increased demand for consumer goods would most likely accrue to businesses based in Opuwo rather than to the Himba in the immediate vicinity of the project. And those who do profit may well go from "boom to bust" since the rise in demand is unlikely to be sustained once the dam is complete.

It is unlikely that many of the Himba in the project area will secure formal employment during the construction phase, given their low level of marketable skills and their lack of proficiency in English. But they may be part of the informal settlement which will probably grow up around the construction town, with attendant problems such as crime, alcoholism, prostitution and the spread of AIDS.

It is also possible that the sudden influx of outsiders may threaten budding community–based initiatives for women who harvest plants which are marketable in the international perfume and cosmetic industry, through uncontrolled access and harvesting by outsiders.

2.9 Increased Crime

The influx of construction workers, their families and hangers on would increase the likelihood of increased crime in an area that until now is relatively free from serious crime. This would probably take the form of cattle theft from the Himba and poaching of wildlife and the illegal harvesting of other natural resources, such as trees, etc.

2.10 Loss of Control over Area

The consequent loss of control over the area poses one of the most serious threats to Himba culture and livelihood. Should outsiders involved in the hydropower project get a foothold in the area and be permitted to use the land and natural resources in the area then it would be extremely difficult for the Epupa community to remove them in the future in the absence of secure rights to the land the Himba occupy. This in turn could lead to our further marginalisation and impoverishment.

2.11 Loss of Eco–Tourism Potential

The Epupa community has presently made application to Government to obtain more secure rights to the land around the Epupa Falls with a view to being able to control tourism in that area more effectively and to obtain financial benefits therefrom.

The loss of the Epupa Falls area to inundation would be a grave loss to the Epupa community in terms of potential eco–tourism and the benefits in the future that could serve as a major development project for that community.


The Feasibility Study Report is incomplete. We also have several problems with the manner in which the process was conducted. The social investigation had to be suspended after statements made by the Deputy Minister of Mines and Energy at a public hearing on 8 March 1997 in Opuwo gave a strong impression that the decision to build the dam had already been taken. As a result, members of the Himba communities most directly affected by the dam felt that their input was irrelevant. They refused to continue with the household, water and health surveys which were still in progress. They also refused to discuss mitigation, which covers all aspects of compensation to persons who would be adversely affected by the construction of the hydropower scheme. Despite these negative consequences these views have been reiterated by senior Nampower officials more recently.

In addition, field staff who were conducting these portions of the study reported harassment and intimidation by government officials in the Kunene region. In July 1997 heavily armed personnel from the Namibian Police broke up a private meeting between the Epupa community and their lawyers from the Legal Assistance Centre and refused to allow it to continue. The purpose of the meeting was primarily to give feedback on the social aspects of the Feasibility Study to the community and to discuss their response thereto. It was only after the Legal Assistance Centre obtained a court order from the High Court that the Epupa community were able to meet with their lawyers without fear of intimidation and harassment from government agents.

These events added to an existing lack of trust on the part of the Himba community that the Government was, firstly, not serious about objectively assessing the findings of the Feasibility Study before taking a decision as to whether to proceed with the project, and secondly, whether the Government was serious about wanting to hear what the community wanted to say about the project or instead rather to suppress our views.

Another complicating factor was the Government’s failure to follow through on a promise to appoint a credible liaison body to facilitate communication between Government and the Epupa community. The Legal Assistance Centre was approached by the project in February 1997 to fulfil this function but after delays of some 4 months the Ministry of Mines and Energy indicated that they had the capacity to do so.

The University of Namibia was then appointed in this role and also to discuss mitigation with the Epupa community, effectively bypassing the feasibility team. The leader of the UNAM team only spoke directly to the Epupa community as late as October 1997 and was informed by Chief Kapika speaking on behalf of the Epupa community that they did not consider it appropriate to deal with a new group of consultants as they had confidence with the existing field team consisting of Dr Michael Bollig and Dr Margaret Jacobsohn. Despite this decision by the Epupa community the Unam team went behind the back of Chief Kapika to try to persuade one of his councillors to attend a meeting with them through offering him money for transport to attend a meeting with the Unam team. This attempt to undermine the authority of the Himba traditional leadership effectively ended UNAM’s role in liaising with the Himba. We understand that despite this the UNAM team continued with their study parallel to the Feasibility Study and believe that they have presented a report to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Since we have not obtained a copy of such report we cannot comment on it, save to say that it does not and cannot form part of the Feasibility Study. It also cannot directly reflect our views in regard to the dam issue since we did not consult with them.

We accordingly request a copy thereof so as to determine whose views exactly UNAM has presented to the Government.


Our opposition to the dam does not stem from a blind rejection of all forms of change, or from a lack of understanding of the project. We have discussed the proposed dams in detail and have come to our own conclusions independent of outside groups.

Nothing we have been told convinces us that a hydropower development at either the Epupa or Baines sites would be in our interests. In fact we have much to lose should either dam be built, as detailed above. We genuinely fear that the influx of a large number of construction workers and their families into the area would swamp us in the same way as the inundation caused by the dam would. We can also not distinguish between the Epupa and Baines sites since the effect on us would be the same in terms of the impact of a large group of outsiders on our way of life. To us, Baines can be likened to the tail of the cow and Epupa the body. Our fear is that if we give the Government the tail we are in fact allowing them to wrestle the whole cow from our hands.

For these reasons we are totally opposed to the construction of a hydropower scheme on the lower Cunene River at either the Epupa or Baines sites and will never agree to such a scheme. We are of this view since we do not believe that the project is in the best interests of Namibia nor the communities we represent in the Kunene Region, and particularly damaging to the livelihood and economic subsistence of the Himba people living in the project areas which would be flooded should the dam be built.

We accordingly call on the Government to look at alternatives to the Lower Cunene Hydropower Scheme with the view to securing Namibia’s electricity needs for the future in a way that will not destroy the Himba culture, economy and ancestral gravesites.

We confirm, finally, that the above position is endorsed by 26 out of the 32 traditional leaders in the Kunene Region, some of whom have signed the attached petition.

(Petition is on file at the Legal Assistance Centre, Windhoek, Namibia.)