Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Zambezi be dammed!

(Note the columnists' call for "A national campaign to stop Eskom from
buying hydroelectric power from Mphanda Nkuwa." Any South Africans out
there who want to get this off the ground??)

The Zambezi be dammed!

2010-11-03 07:50
by Andreas Sp�th

Eskom makes all of us energy colonialists. By buying electricity from
a new hydroelectric dam in Mozambique it will continue to contribute
to social and environmental degradation in one of the world�s poorest

In August, the government of Mozambique officially approved the
construction of the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam which is to be built in the
Zambezi River about 60km downstream from the existing Cahora Bassa
Dam. The project is expected to cost between $2bn and $3.5bn and
deliver 1 500MW of electricity with the potential of being expanded to
2 400MW.

Construction, led by a consortium of Mozambican and Brazilian
interests, is slated to start in 2011 and take five to six years to
complete. As early as January the Mozambican newspaper Not�cias
reported that negotiations of long-term power purchase agreements with
Eskom were expected to be concluded this year.

�So what�s wrong with that?� you ask. �Isn�t this sort of thing going
to help Mozambique develop?�

Indeed, proponents of the new dam claim that it will attract energy-
intensive industries to the country, but in reality, Eskom and power
hungry South Africa are expected to consume some 90% of the
electricity generated.

Devastating impacts

Only about 5% of Mozambicans currently have access to electricity and
half of those live in Maputo. The impoverished rural majority, much in
need of electricity, will not see any of the power produced by the new

Contrary to popular belief, large hydroelectric dams frequently have
devastating social and environmental impacts on rivers and the people
and ecosystems that depend on them. In the case of Mphanda Nkuwa, more
than 1 400 people are expected to be displaced by the dam and its
associated infrastructure and social and environmental justice
activists estimate that it threatens to compromise the livelihood of
100 000 to 200 000 subsistence farmers and fishers living downstream.

In order to cater for periods of peak electricity demand in South
Africa, the turbines in the dam will be required to operate
intermittently, resulting in mini-floods twice a day and fluctuations
in river level of 0.5 to 2.8 metres the effects of which will be felt
hundreds of kilometres downstream.

Rising flood waters will erode some of the most productive farmlands
and riverbank gardens on which locals depend for their food security.
The mini-floods will also threaten downstream sandbanks and other
important habitats for various bird, invertebrate and fish species.

The electricity generated by large hydroelectric dams isn�t even
carbon neutral. Accumulating rotting organic matter which would
normally be flushed downriver continuously causes the emission of
significant quantities of greenhouse gasses.

Neither is it renewable since the reservoirs tend to gradually fill up
with sediment, depriving the river and its floodplains of nutrients
while steadily reducing the dam�s capacity. What�s more, scientists
predict that lower precipitation due to climate change will lead to
reduced flow rates of the Zambezi, threatening the long-term viability
of the project.

Old news

All of this is old news. The UN has described the 2075MW Cahora Bassa
Dam, built in 1974, as one of the most destructive major projects in
Africa. Running at a financial loss, Cahora Bassa has caused reduced
fertility and massive erosion downstream, led to the drying up of the
Zambezi Delta, one of the continent�s most important wetlands, and
contributed to a 60% decline in the important local prawn industry
between 1978 and 1995.

Efforts to restore the disrupted ecosystems of the lower Zambezi by
changing the water release patterns from Cahora Bassa to mimic natural
river flows more closely will be made difficult by the construction of
Mphanda Nkuwa. Yet the Mozambican government approved the dam before
the environmental impact assessment has even been completed, stating
that it would have no identifiable impact of the Zambezi Delta or
local fisheries.

So what�s to be done? A national campaign to stop Eskom from buying
hydroelectric power from Mphanda Nkuwa would be a good start. Without
that, the project is dead in the water, financially speaking. Anabela
Lemos, the director of the Maputo-based NGO Justicia Ambiental sums up
the real distribution of benefits with candour: �Clean, decentralized
energy for all should be the top priority, not damming the Zambezi to
support energy-hogging industry and cities in South Africa.�

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the
independent book shop at Idasa�s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow
him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Send your comments to Andreas

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