Victoria Falls, upstream of the proposed Batoka Gorge Dam. Photo courtesy of Livingstone Adventures.

Victoria Falls, upstream of the proposed Batoka Gorge Dam. Photo courtesy of Livingstone Adventures.

By Rudo Sanyanga and Lori Pottinger, International Rivers

Downstream of the world-renowned Victoria Falls, at the bottom of the Batoka Gorge, lies one of the world's premier whitewater runs. Kayakers and rafters have been flocking to this technical section of Africa's Zambezi River for decades.

But if the governments of Zimbabwe and Zambia succeed in building the proposed Batoka Gorge Dam, much of the section will be drowned, severely harming the area's river-based tourism, partly flooding the Victoria Falls UNESCO World Heritage Site, and burying crucial habitat for endangered bird species in the process.

Though energy poverty remains high in both countries, building another huge dam on the Zambezi – which already has 30 large storage reservoirs — is not the best way to increase energy access for the poor, who mostly live too far from established grids and would use too little electricity to be considered beneficiaries of such a megaproject. Moreover, an extensive 2012 report on the hydrological risks to Zambezi River dams reported climate change is predicted to cause a 25 to 40 percent reduction in the river's flow, which could significantly compromise the hydroelectric productivity of the Batoka Gorge project.

The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) — the corporate body tasked with overseeing the project – estimates the Batoka Gorge Dam will cost at least $6 billion, but according to a recent analysis of large-scale dam projects across the globe, the actual costs of dams are "on average 96% higher than estimated costs." The project would be a huge and highly risky investment for the poor nations of Zambia and Zimbabwe (whose GDPs are $25 billion and $14 billion respectively), and most locals wouldn't qualify for the short-term jobs generated by the construction of the 1,600-megawatt dam, which is expected to take 10-13 years to complete.

Airborne kayaker on the Zambezi River.

Airborne kayaker on the Zambezi River.

The proposed dam site is located near the Kabompo Falls, a constriction in the river canyon. Rising 181 meters (594 feet), the dam would create a 50-kilometer (31-mile) long reservoir that would flood the gorge upstream to Rapid 5, just below Victoria Falls. The project would drown the Zambezi's iconic big-water rapids and devastate river-based tourism.

“If we lose the river, we lose not only the sport of rafting and kayaking, but our jobs," says David Choongo, a Zambezi River guide. "There will be so much suffering because our guiding jobs support our entire extended families and is all the income we have.

"Forget about generating power ten years from now, how will we eat tomorrow if the dam is built? That is our reality."

The whitewater tourism industry employs about 400 people on the Zimbabwean side and 300 more in Zambia. Rafting generates about $4 million annually.

At least a dozen villages would be directly affected by the project, as the loss of whitewater rafting would harm the adventure tourism reputation of the entire area and provide less of a draw for international visitors.

Ways Forward
It is useful to remember that this project has been under consideration for some 70 years, during which the world has made huge leaps in the fields of decentralized energy provision, renewable energy technologies, and energy efficiency strategies. Yet these innovations have been left off the table in the lead-up to this dam project. In that time, too, the world has awoken to the need to protect vital natural resources like our rivers and wetlands, and the many values healthy rivers bring.

Batoka is a very risky project, and many of the problems associated with it have not yet been properly assessed.

It is very important that NGOs and civil society groups in the region continue to monitor the preparation and implementation of the project, so they can help ensure that social, environmental and climate risks are thoroughly analyzed, that the concerns of the local communities and river-dependent businesses are addressed, and that transparency is improved. If the World Bank gets involved in funding construction, it offers an opportunity to review project documents to ensure key issues have been addressed, and that safeguard policies are adhered to. It would also be important to ensure that project implementation is in compliance with the local laws and constitutions.

The proponents of this dam should think long and hard before condemning a beautiful gorge to destruction for the sake of a relatively small amount of power. There are cheaper, smarter, and more sustainable options available for development.

Rudo Sanyanga is the Africa program director for International Rivers; she is from Zimbabwe and based in South Africa. Lori Pottinger has worked on Zambezi issues for International Rivers for many years.

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