Zambezi Basin Dam Boom Threatens Delta

Yolanda Machena and Sibonginkosi Maposa
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Batoka Gorge would be flooded if the proposed dam goes ahead.
Batoka Gorge would be flooded if the proposed dam goes ahead.
Photo by Tony Wasserman

From World Rivers Review June 2013

For years plans have been on the table within the Zambezi basin countries to boost their energy supply by building additional hydropower dams on the river. In the last year, plans for building the Batoka and Mphanda Nkuwa hydropower dams have been advanced by the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments; and the Mozambican government respectively. The realization of these plans will add two huge dams on the mainstem Zambezi River, the largest river in Southern Africa.

The 2,574 km Zambezi River rises in the Kalene Hills in northwest Zambia and flows south and then eastward to the Indian Ocean. The river’s watershed encompasses globally important features, including the vast floodplains (Barotse and Kafue), the world-renowned Victoria Falls, wildlife reserves, spectacular gorges, and one of the largest natural lakes (Lake Malawi). The basin is home to hundreds of thousands of people. The Zambezi became a huge tourist destination following the end of wars in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Mphanda Nkuwa Dam is to be located about 60 km downstream from the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. The Batoka Dam is to be located 50 km downstream of the Victoria Falls at the Moemba Falls, on the stretch of the river shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Construction work on the Mphanda Nkuwa was supposed to commence in 2011 after planning dating back some years. Although construction has not yet commenced, the Mphanda Nkuwa Development Authority has been established, headquartered in Maputo, with staff and all the paraphernalia that goes with huge infrastructure projects. Plans for the Batoka Gorge date back to the early 1990s and energy ministers from Zimbabwe and Zambia met earlier this year to discuss their implementation.

Mphanda Nkuwa’s reservoir will flood 97 square kilometers and have a total energy capacity of 1,500 MW. The Batoka Gorge will be a 181m high dam with a total energy capacity of 1,600 MW.

The Zambezi already has two of Africa’s biggest dams on its mainstem (Kariba and Cahora Bassa). Significant large dams on its tributaries include Kafue Gorge and Itezhi-tezhi on the Kafue River.

Ownership and financing

The Mphanda Nkuwa project was approved by the Mozambican government in 2010 and was estimated to cost US$2 billion, with promised financing from the China Exim Bank, the publicly owned Electricidade de Mocambique (EDM); Camargo Correa, a Brazilian company; and the Mozambique company Energia. With only 5% government shareholding to mitigate political risk, uncertainty persists over the mega-investment’s net benefit to tax revenues and national development. The Batoka Gorge scheme, on the other hand, is a joint initiative by the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe, overseen by the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA). It is expected to be supported with funding from the World Bank and other interested parties. The projected cost of this scheme is somewhere between US$2.8 billion and US$4 billion. It is reported that six companies have been shortlisted for construction of the Batoka while a new EIA is currently underway.

The government says it hopes Mphanda Nkuwa Dam will attract more energy-intensive industries to Mozambique and that it will address rural electrification shortfalls, but the reality is that Mozambique’s absolute consumption of electricity is very low (78kWh per capita per year). Less than 5% of the population currently has access to electricity, and half of these live in the capital Maputo. Extending a transmission grid to those in need of electricity will be prohibitively expensive and unlikely to take place any time in the near future. The majority of the electricity generated by Mphanda Nkuwa will be sold to South Africa.

Similar electricity generation objectives drive the Batoka Gorge initiative. It is anticipated that this scheme will increase electricity generation capacity, reduce reliance on imports and boost inflows of foreign currency from electricity exports as well as creating jobs for the locals. The scheme is expected to produce 1,650MW of electricity and boost the generation at Kariba by 300MW. The electricity generated is to be shared equally between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Cumulative impacts adding up

The Zambezi is already one of the most dammed rivers in Africa. As the climate warms, it is expected to experience more prolonged drought periods and more disastrous floods when the rains do fall. In the 2012 study “A Risky Climate for Southern African Hydro,” Dr. Richard Beilfuss, a renowned hydrologist, assessed the impact of climate change on the Zambezi River Basin. The study reports that over the next century, rainfall will decrease by between 10% and 15% over the basin. The Zambezi River Authority has been criticized for basing the Batoka Gorge Dam on plans that were last reviewed in 1993, plans which do not take into account climate change issues. Similarly, the Mphanda Nkuwa scheme has been criticized for failing to adequately consider its socio-economic and environmental impacts. It has been argued that the effects of climate change, impacts on communities downstream, on river flows, sediment collection, and river bed agriculture have not been adequately considered.

The Batoka scheme will flood the gorge and drown the massive rapids that have made Victoria Falls a prime whitewater rafting location. All previous environmental impact assessments reported that the reservoir would stretch to the plunge pool of the Victoria Falls, which the developers deny. The International Rafting Federation considers Batoka as the “most famous stretch of white waters in the world.”

Both schemes will lead to the displacement of local communities. On March 14, 2013, Justiça Ambiental (JA!) – an organization based in Mozambique which works closely with communities on environmental issues – brought together over 50 communities on the banks of the Zambezi River to build up support and awareness. This included communities that will be displaced from their homes when and if Mphanda Nkuwa is built.

The Batoka Gorge area is a significant part of the tourism industry. At its peak, Victoria Falls, Mana pools and Lake Kariba received over 1.5 million visitors a year, with most going to Victoria Falls and the gorges. During the time of economic downturn in Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls has been the only area that offered returns in tourism revenue.

With recent climate studies showing the risk of longer droughts, reduced flows and increased risk of extreme flooding events in the region, damming the Zambezi River is not a reliable or sustainable solution for power-deficit countries. Wind, solar and micro-hydro are viable options and especially well-suited to meeting the huge unmet demand for local electricity supply in the rural areas. Improving existing hydropower capacities at existing dams is another good option.

It also appears that each of the riparian countries is planning to export hydropower, presumably to South Africa. Meanwhile South Africa has huge plans to meet its future energy needs with projects including the Grand Inga and Inga 3 in the DRC, and domestic nuclear, coal and some renewables. The SADC countries would do well to integrate their energy demands with planned developments.

More information: 

 New Book Analyzes Legacy of Cahora Bassa Dam

The sad history of one of Africa’s biggest dams is the topic of an engaging and important new book, “Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and its Legacies” (Ohio University Press, 2013), by Allen and Barbara Isaacman. The book, which is rich with first-hand quotes of people directly impacted by the massive scheme, analyzes the social, environmental and economic failures of this huge dam project. A picture emerges of a river being used as a political football in a time of civil war and waning colonial power, and a project fraught with injustices. “Cahora Bassa not only changed the Zambezi forever, but it also affected the lives of every individual who lived adjacent to the harnessed waters,” write the authors. This excellent study offers a cautionary tale for those who would build new destructive large dams on the Zambezi River, and should be required reading for the region’s river agencies and energy ministries.