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The Consequences Of Damming The Zambezi River Go Far Beyond Killing A River Wave

(Editor's Note: Alan Van Gysen (AVG), the author of this piece and one of South Africa's finest adventure and surf photographers, led our cast deep into rapids of the Zambezi River for our film, "Go easy on the Zambezi." Rapid number 11, otherwise known as Creamy White Buttocks, produces one of the longest, most perfect barreling river waves in the world (it only breaks a few times a year, if at all).

For the past few years, we've been in contact with AVG, wanting to do a documentary piece on the river wave. This summer, the jigsaw fell into place and within 48 hours we assembled a team of surfers (Mikey Feb, Harry Bryant, Dylan Graves) and deployed our content producers to the heart of Sub-Saharan Africa. The film is available for $5.99 here. The dam project Alan describes in the story below, if set in place, will stop the rapids from flowing and with it the never-ending waves of the Creamy White Buttocks will die.)

Come sunset, when Africa's primary source of energy, the sun, goes down, and families begin lighting candles and lamps, Africa truly does become the “dark continent.”

Overall, the continent contributes less than five percent of global electrification; dominated by only a handful of countries such as South Africa and Egypt. One-third of the world's 1.6 billion people living without light reside in Africa; surviving on bio-mass, car batteries, paraffin and candles instead. A satellite photo of the earth at night compiled by NASA, using data from meteorological programs, shows Africa as a continent 'largely void of illuminated cities'. According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), less than 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity, with nearly two-thirds of the region experiencing acute energy shortages.

Huge, multi-billion-dollar dams are often seen as the only solution to Africa's critical shortage of power. But are they really the best solution, and do they have the best interests of the region’s inhabitants in mind, given the environmental damage caused by dams, and the social and economic impact both directly and indirectly? 

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

Zimbabwe and Zambia’s Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme (BGHES) is one of Africa’s “newest” dam developments on the cards. The site is already pre-developed by way of a new, lengthy airstrip, electrical substations, and tunnels drilled into both the Zimbabwean and Zambian gorges flanks already.

The most up-to-date, and only officially available, document on the proposed BGHES is in the form of a ‘Project Overview Document’ from The Zambezi River Authority, ZESCO Limited and ZESA Holdings, released in March 2017 which offers, among other things, information on what this new dam on the mighty Zambezi River will look like and offer.

Set 47km downstream from the famous Victoria Falls, the BGHES will be located in the central portion of the Zambezi River Basin and will extend across the international boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This is upstream from the existing Kariba Dam hydroelectric scheme.

No resettlement will be required for the dam as the reservoir will be fully contained in the gorge. Water quality will be affected by the BGHES and the surrounding region. There will be an adverse impact on the river ecosystem. And there will be a negative impact on the habitats of Avifauna such as the Taita Falcon and the Rock Pratincole. Additionally, the dam tailwater is expected to flood a number of rapids which are currently used for tourism purposes by both Zambia and Zimbabwe during low flows.

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

Victoria Falls is perhaps the most famous waterfall in existence. Situated on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Falls are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1989. Roughly one million people visit the Falls each year.

“Damming the Batoka Gorge is like damming the Grand Canyon,” says International Rivers African Program Director Rudo Sanyanga. “It is our heritage that we will lose and the damage is irreversible. In the face of climate change, it is insane to keep investing in large hydro on the Zambezi River basin, a region vulnerable to extreme multi-year droughts and floods that occur nearly every decade. Drought-induced power shortages are likely to increase according to climate change predictions.

The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) raised similar concerns in 2014 when they handed in comments and recommendations about the then proposed BGHES.

That same year researchers from Oxford University reviewed the financial performance of two hundred and forty-five dams and concluded that the “construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return.”

Other forms of energy generation—wind, solar, and miniature hydropower units that can be installed inside irrigation canals—are becoming competitive, and they cause far less social and environmental damage. And dams are particularly ill-suited to climate change, which simultaneously requires that they be larger (to accommodate the anticipated floods) and smaller (to be cost-effective during the anticipated droughts).

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

If the people of Zambia and Zimbabwe really need electricity, what about an alternative source? Dams negatively affect people and places; the evidence is undeniable and overwhelming. So, the question remains: Are these mega-dams a necessary catalyst for development? Aren’t they supposed to be built to bring positive growth and development to inhabitants?

‘There is nothing sustainable about large dams at all,” states Professor Thayer Scudder, the world's leading expert on dams and development, formerly the World Bank's principal resettlement consultant, and one of 12 commissioners on the World Commission on Dams (WCD). ‘There are millions of people in Africa that depend on rivers for sustenance, they are the losers. The World Bank ignores the impacts.”

‘The World Bank wants to stay in the game; the companies want to build and the governments are more than happy to comply,” add Scudder. “It's a way for the political elites, banks, ECAs and corporations to make billions.”

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