The Zambezi River: Threatened Paddling Classics #7
‘Arguably the finest one-day whitewater rafting trip on the planet’
Editor’s Note: The author of this article wished to remain anonymous. Cover photo: Victoria Falls, courtesy Livingstone Adventures.
Victoria Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, a spectacular 1.8-kilometer-wide cascade of water plunging into a 108-meter chasm. The spectacle is so awe-inspiring it famously moved Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone to proclaim “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Known to the local Toka-leya people as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke That Thunders,” this UNESCO world heritage site situated on the international border between Zimbabwe and Zambia stands as a breathtaking gateway to the Batoka Gorge of the middle Zambezi–arguably the finest one-day whitewater rafting trip on the planet.
The first descent of the Zambezi in the Batoka gorge took place in 1982 by Mountain Travel Sobek, on a trip that included a landmine disposal unit of the Zimbabwean National Army and a wave off from the then Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. Since that trip the Zambezi has become an institution in the world of big water paddling, for commercial Class V rafting operations, as well as providing the ideal training and proving ground for whitewater paddling legends such as Steve Fisher, Alex Nicks, Nico Chassing, Pete Merideth and Stanford Ricketts, to name only a few.
Affectionately known as the “Slambezi” for its huge features, big flips on the run are the norm as opposed to the exception. From the 14,000 novice clients who raft the Zambezi commercially each year to professional kayakers, the river literally has something for everyone.
The quintessential Zambezi run is the one-day trip from Rapid One in the “Boiling Pot” to Rapid 25, access is straightforward along this stretch, with various entry and exit points, there is even a cable car at Rapid 25 on the Zambian side and a multitude of companies offer trips. Four- and seven-day expedition style trips offer exceptional, unbelievably scenic, isolated and remote wild camping on pristine beaches with some huge Class V whitewater thrown in for good measure.
Generally the river is relatively forgiving Class IV-V, with warm water and calm pools below the rapids. Intermediate kayakers with a solid roll (and the daring to give it a go) can easily navigate the day run.
Unfortunately, this unique World Heritage site is about to be flooded to provide hydroelectric power to the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). Originally proposed in the 1970s, the first attempts at damming the river in the 1990s were headed off by a strong ‘no’ vote from local communities and a political détente between Zimbabwe and Zambia, over the debt Zimbabwe had fallen into with a past dam project. Recently, a shift in the political landscape led to a decision to go ahead with the project, and the two governments signed a memorandum in February 2012. Now the social and environmental impact assessment studies are near completion, an unusually quick turn around for such a large-scale project. “It usually takes far longer to get large hydro projects rolling” said Rudo Sanyanga, the Africa program director for International Rivers.
The World Bank has been a key player in bringing together the two countries in signing this memorandum. Using an investment vehicle known as “Cooperation in International Waters in Africa” (CIWA), co-funded by the governments of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the World Bank has funded the initial stages of the project to the tune of $6 million. (You may recognise CIWA from the dam controversy on the White Nile in Uganda; it is the same body.)
Since the memorandum, the companies conducting the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) accompanied by the Zambezi River Authority have conducted two stakeholder meetings in Livingstone, Zambia, on the project.
The first meeting held in October 2014 was absolute chaos; “It was glaringly obvious that the proponents of this project had no idea that anyone would attend, much less object,” said Cooper Freeman an international river guide who attended the meeting.
International pressure and incredulity at the first meeting resulted in a second stakeholder meeting in January 2015, which was well organized and informative. The language of the consultants had changed, and the ESIA staff referred to the project as “the proposed Batoka Dam Hydro Electric Power Scheme” (previously the “proposed” part of the title had been omitted). Despite this, there was a strong sense that the proponents of the project are arrogantly confident that the project will be green lit.
If the environmental departments of Zimbabwe and Zambia approve the project, the Batoka Dam is scheduled to be completed and generating power by 2025. The ESIA staff indicated that the project is already behind schedule.
The dam will require a 176-meter radial impoundment wall to be located at Chabango Falls approximately 50 kilometers from the Victoria Falls. On a maximum power generation policy the water will flood the gorge back to Rapid Six. This level is referred to as the 757-meter contour line. A potential compromise is to allocate a lower contour line path known as 740-meter contour line, flooding back to Rapid 13 “The Mother”. This would theoretically allow a low-water rafting trip for some of the year. The second contour line option only appeared after the dam builders gauged the level of opposition to the project, but it doesn’t address most of the local tourism industry’s concerns as both levels will not allow sustainable, year-round rafting and will result in the flooding of a World Heritage site and the biodiverse Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
Livingstone’s tourism industry has been built on the back of the whitewater rafting industry. Rafting companies migrated from the Zimbabwean side of the river to the Zambian side in the early 90s to accommodate increased demand for the river trips. Currently there are twenty-three other activities offered, and the area is marketed as the “Adventure Capital” of Southern Africa. Since rafting employs thousands of local people directly and indirectly, the eradication of this industry will be economically catastrophic to the area as a whole.
What’s more, climate models call the dam’s very ability to produce consistent power into question. As Sanyanga explains, “Under future climate scenarios based on a 2012 study of the hydrological risks to hydropower dams on the Zambezi, the proposed Batoka Gorge Dam is unlikely to deliver the expected power over its lifetime”.
The dam’s construction will not employ unskilled labor from the local communities, and the Zambezi River Authority noted that as little as fourteen people could operate the entire dam. Additionally, the dam will not provide electricity to rural, local population as the power is purely for export to the Southern African Power Pool.
Any short-term revenues generated by the Batoka Dam would not make up for the loss of an existing, operating tourism industry–an industry acknowledged as Zambia’s third biggest contributor to the economy.
Local residents, NGOs and paddlers are continuing to lead the fight against this ill-conceived project. The Batoka Dam may be in the best interest of a wealthy few, but it is incredibly threatening to the well being of local communities. There are better ways to generate renewable power than the destruction of one of the world’s greatest whitewater wilderness rivers.
–Learn more about the Batoka Dam on the Zambezi in an Op-ed by International Rivers on CanoeKayak.com.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1) Western governments fund CIWA. You can contact your World Bank representatives and express concern regarding the proposed dam on the Zambezi.
2) You can use social media as much as possible to create awareness at the loss of our river.
3) You can come paddling! The more people that come use the resource, the better: Come take videos and pictures, and develop an affinity to the river as well as the people it supports.
4) You can donate to organizations such as International Rivers who lobby to protect waterways.
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other runs, and stay tuned as more are released:
#8: Ecuador’s Jondachi River: A whitewater paradise in the Amazon rainforest
#9 – Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A canoe-tripping haven
#10 – Colorado’s Yampa River: A desert rafting classic