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New dam project stirs controversy

A government decision to build a new dam on the Zambezi River has invited the wrath of environmentalists and scientists who fear that the project may increase the incidence of flooding, leading to destruction of property and loss of lives.
Fred Katerere

The Zambezi River is a prized resource in the Southern African nations of Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe - where it meanders through before draining its waters into the Indian Ocean. These nations have taken advantage of the mighty river and harnessed its water for projects which include fisheries, tourism and hydroelectric power. As each of the nations compete for several projects they tout poverty alleviation through employment as one of the reasons of exploiting this ''manna from heaven.'' But now the government of Mozambique is pitted in a war of theories with environmentalists and scientists after it announced in May 2002 that it was going to add another hydroelectric dam project on the river. Mepanda Uncua dam - to be set up 70 kilometres downstream of the existing Cahora Bassa dam in the northwestern province of Tete has pushed environmentalists and scientist to the deep end.

The experts are arguing that further damming of the Zambezi river will intensify flooding in the province in times of plenty rains. The government is not taking this theory seriously as at the end of 2002 it gave the nod to the construction of the dam. The construction of the dam is expected to cost US Dollar 1.3 billion, and to get this money the government has tendered the construction of the dam, which is expected to be operational by 2007.

In recent times it was only in 2001 when about 100 people were killed and thousands displaced in floods- in Tete province- which were directly attributed to the poor management of the existing dams on the river. Upstream the river there is also the Kariba dam which is controlled by Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Professor Bryan Davies, an ecologist and expert on the Zambezi River is one of the critical voices on the further damming of the river. ''I am appalled at the decision to go ahead with the dam,'' said Davies in an interview late last year. He argues Mozambique is too poor to spend that kind of money on a hydroelectric dam project that will in the long run also contribute to the deaths of the citizens and destruction of property in times of flooding. ''Basically the decision on Mepanda Uncua is ill advised, expensive and is probably politically motivated,'' he added.

Going against the tides of the arguments, the government is saying the project will bring in more income and much needed jobs to the impoverished country of 18 million. Mepanda Uncua is expected to generate some 2 000 megawatts of electricity- which will be equally exported to neighbouring nations and used locally. The dam is also expected to break the monopoly of Mozambique's hydroelectric power, currently enjoyed by South African power giant Eskom, which controls 82 per cent of the 3 750 mega watts generated from the Cahora Bassa dam while the government controls 18 percent.

''There is need for the government to control power that is generated locally as we can be switched off any time if it is left to foreign companies", 'noted a government official in the Tete province.

Scientists further argue that no matter who controls or operates the dams on the Zambezi, they will have to do a better job of regulating the flow as improper management of the existing dams has caused problems over the years. In 1978, some 45 people died in the floods after authorities suddenly opened the Cahora Bassa's floodgates, ending an upsurge of water downstream. In February 1997, the dam's gates reportedly came to close to failure under pressure of fast rising floodwaters. When engineers finally opened the gates, fierce vibrations are reported to have occurred- which engineers claim could have weakened the structure of the dam.

Environmentalists further claim that improper management of the dams - in regards to the opening of floodgates in times of over flooding has depleted the population prawns and other marine life down stream on the Zambezi. 'I am very, very worried that further dams such as Mepanda Uncua will simply regulate the flow of the Zambezi even further than present. The coastal fisheries and estuarine prawn industry has diminished because of the mismanagement of the flow from Cahora Bassa. No one listens,'' complains Davies.

Tourism companies are also taking positions on the site of the dam arguing that they will provide the best facilities to anglers coming to fish on that part of the Zambezi. But Davies is sceptical on the tourism part of the dam as well. ''I am utterly cynical about tourism. Tourism is more often than not used to falsify the 'benefits' of dams such as Mepanda Uncua, It is a cynical joke," said Davies.

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