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Green lobby opposes dam construction

Mozambique is proposing to build another giant dam on the Zambezi River in the hope of boosting development, but which environmentalists believe will add to the damage caused by the existing Cahora Bassa dam, one of the largest hydroelectric schemes in Africa.

The new dam, Mphanda Nkuwa, would be built approximately 60km downriver of Cahora Bassa in the northwest of the country. Planners intend to produce a peak output of 1,300 megawatts of electricity, about equal to Mozambique's total current consumption. Most of the power will be exported to neighbouring South Africa, although surplus electricity will also be used to lure investment in domestic heavy industry.

The Export-Import Bank of China has said it would help finance the estimated US$2 billion project, which is yet have a schedule for construction.

"These kinds of projects are beginning to create the sources of revenue, opportunities for employment, and contributions to the balance of payments that contribute to the fight against poverty," said Sérgio Jeremias Elísio, head of the Technical Unit for Implementation of Hydro-power Projects (UTIP), the government's hydropower agency, in a written statement provided to IRIN.

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, with most of the population living on less than $2 per day.

Few benefits

Critics said few of the almost three million people living in the Zambezi Valley, including some 1,400 who would be displaced by the new dam, would benefit, since the project would create few permanent jobs, while local populations would nonetheless bear all the environmental costs.

Mini-floods from Mphanda Nkuwa would destroy riverside fields, "essential for ensuring food security during the dry season", according to the International Rivers Network (IRN), a US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), which campaigns for the protection of rivers and defends the rights of communities that depend on them. IRN has campaigned against the construction of dams on the Zambezi, which already has 30 large dams in its basin.

A government-commissioned feasibility study, completed in 2002, included an environmental impact assessment but did not identify major impacts on the environment. "The risks of significant adverse impacts to biodiversity from construction activities and inundation appear low," it said.

Elísio said the building of hydroelectric capacity, along with government plans for rural electrification, would allow Mozambique to wean itself from burning biomass, such as trees, which was the environmentally unsustainable means of producing energy for about 90 percent of the population.

The assessment also echoed some of the fears of environmental activists about mini-floods, concluding that the potential for adverse effects on the people who lived near the river - in terms of access to potable water and the impact on livelihoods, such as fishing and farming - required "further studies".

Much of the anxiety over the construction of Mphanda Nkuwa is fuelled by the experience of Cahora Bassa, which has been widely cited as an environmental catastrophe since its construction in the early 1970s under the former Portuguese colonial power.

According to IRN, Cahora Bassa displaced tens of thousands of people and severely degraded downstream floodplains and fisheries.

The construction of the dam permanently altered the natural pattern of flooding, on which the local population relied for food cultivation. The dam has also been blamed for decimating crustacean stocks along the coast near the estuary.

IRN pointed out that significant work was being done to restore the lower Zambezi by improving the water release patterns of Cahora Bassa. "Water release patterns that more closely mimic natural flows will improve the richness of the degraded downstream environment."

Although Cahora Bassa is supposed to mitigate the damage caused by floods, a former government energy director, among others, suspect that mismanagement of the dam's water releases worsened catastrophic flooding that displaced more than 150,000 people in the Zambezi Valley in February this year.

Mismanagement fears

Daniel Ribeiro, a leading dam researcher for Environmental Justice, an activist group based in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, claimed that water levels in the reservoir were kept dangerously high in December, at the beginning of the rainy season, to ensure that enough electricity was produced.

''These kinds of projects are beginning to create the sources of revenue, opportunities for employment, and contributions to the balance of payments that contribute to the fight against poverty''

Public officials strongly denied the accusation. "The floods are linked to unusual, extremely heavy rainfall," Public Works Minister Felício Zacarias told the government-run news service in May.

One of the fears about the proposed new dam is that it may hinder efforts to reform water release management at Cahora Bassa, since Mphanda Nkuwa will require a specific water flow from upriver to operate profitably.

"The situation might be the same as it is now, or it could get worse; it depends on the management [of the new dam]," said Carlos Bento, a biologist at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. "But we can exclude the hypothesis that it would be better - no way."

Environmental Justice helped organise the country's first public protest against illegal logging in April this year, and in May it petitioned the chief prosecutor to force the company that runs Cahora Bassa to turn over documents related to water releases, which the group believed would prove its mismanagement case against the dam.

Also in May, Ribeiro and other African activists visited China, where they met academics and journalists to discuss Chinese financing for development projects in Africa that might have a negative environmental impact.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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