Zambia: From the World Bank to China and Back

African governments have often praised Chinese investment as the panacea for their infrastructure sectors. Zambia’s experience demonstrates that it is not. A Chinese hydropower project on the Kafue River has brought up the whole conundrum of financial problems, environmental impacts, hydro dependency and delays that is typical for large dams.

Mining is the mainstay of Zambia’s formal economy, and consumes a lot of energy. When the copper sector started booming in 2002, finding new sources of energy became a necessity.

Since the mid-1990s, the Zambian government had tried to attract funding from the World Bank and private investors for the Lower Kafue Gorge Dam, a 750 megawatt hydropower project on a tributary of the Zambezi River. In December 2003, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to build the dam project with Sinohydro, a large Chinese hydropower developer. China Exim Bank was supposed to provide 85 percent of the funding. “After the World Bank dragged its feet on the project for years, we reached an MoU with the Chinese within three weeks”, Israel Phiri, a Zambian government official, announced triumphantly in 2004. Lower Kafue Gorge seemed to become a symbol for the fast pace of Chinese dam building around the world.

Or so Zambia’s government hoped. During the next few years, it repeatedly issued promising statements about the progress of the project. First, construction was supposed to begin in 2004. Later, construction was supposed to start in 2006. In January 2007, the country’s energy and water minister announced again that Lower Kafue Gorge was “coming through very well”, and that Zambia would negotiate a construction contract for the project very soon. The government also kept signing agreements for other hydropower projects left and right. Yet on the ground, nothing happened.

The reasons for the delays seem to lie in the problems of Zambia’s electricity sector. According to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country’s state-owned electricity utility is “a troubled company, beset by inefficiencies and high costs”. One third of all customers are unmetered, and staffing costs and distribution losses are very high. Tariffs are low by regional standards, but at $500-600, connection fees are unrealistically high for the large majority of the population. The IMF report proposes to steeply increase electricity tariffs for all consumers. The government in turn argues that the World Bank’s push for privatizing the electricity sector was unrealistic, and the main cause for the electricity shortage.

Unlike the IMF, China officially attaches no strings to its loans and grants. Yet in February 2007, a senior OECD official observed that China Exim Bank “does not hesitate to discuss changes in project-related governance to ensure loan repayment (e.g., pressure to raise electricity tariffs to finance hydropower projects), while claiming that it does not specify firm conditions”. China may be dragging its feet over Lower Kafue Gorge for the same reasons as the World Bank five years earlier.

Sinohydro also interfered with the environmental impact assessment for the project. The dam would have serious impacts on the Kafue Flats, a wetland of international importance with two national parks. Anabela Lemos and Daniel Ribeiro, two experts on the Zambezi, report that Zambia’s power utility chose the project site after a balanced assessment of economic, social and environment factors. However, Sinohydro told the utility that this was not how they did things in China and that they wanted the site to be assessed only according to economic factors. In the end, the original site was selected, but, Lemos and Ribeiro say, “the role of the Chinese dam builders in trying to focus only on the economics of the project does not bode well”.

On February 26, a representative of Zambia’s power company announced that her utility was now discussing a $600 million financing package to boost power generation with financiers from Japan, India and western countries. The first priority was on the Lower Kafue Gorge Project. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation was undertaking a feasibility study for the project. The IMF estimates that completing the dam would take six to eight years, with mobilization of finance as “a central challenge”. Five years after Zambia turned from the World Bank to Sinohydro, Lower Kafue Gorge seems to be back to square one.

While the government chases its dream of multiple new dam projects, the country’s existing power infrastructure is falling into disrepair. According to the IMF, more than a quarter of Zambia’s power plant capacity is currently being repaired because of neglected maintenance. In mid-February, the failure of a generator caused widespread power outages. Maintaining infrastructure is just as important as building new projects, but less prestigious and often neglected.

Meanwhile, the country’s power sector strategy with its focus on large projects has left poor people in the dark. A full 98 percent of rural people and 60 percent of urban dwellers don’t have access to electricity. In July 2007, the power utility began to ration electricity supply to residential consumers in order to service the growing mining industry. And the proposed new hydropower projects will not be used to expand power supply to rural areas, but to serve the mining companies and export power to other countries.

I am not an expert on Zambia’s power sector, but supporting mining companies through large dams seems to be a highly questionable development strategy. If the copper boom fades away in another five or ten years, Zambia will be straddled with an overcapacity of expensive power plants. If Zambia guarantees the mining sector a secure supply of power from additional hydropower projects but climate change reduces the streamflow in the Zambezi Basin, the government will have to cut out residential consumers from power supply altogether in order to fulfill its guarantees to the mining companies.

It seems to me that mining companies could take care of their own power supply by developing their own projects (as long as they follow the state’s social and environmental guidelines), or by negotiating power purchase agreements with foreign suppliers. Rather than taking on huge risks for a few private companies, the state and international financial institutions should concentrate their resources on expanding access to electricity in poor areas, particularly in the countryside. This will not require risky and potentially destructive dam projects, but support for decentralized, renewable energy technologies.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at