Chinese Pledge to Support Zambezi Dam

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The China Export-Import Bank agreed in April 2006 to finance the proposed Mphanda Nkuwa Dam on the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The river basin and its delta are already suffering major environmental impacts from numerous dams upstream, including two of Africa’s biggest, Cahora Bassa and Kariba. The environmental degradation in turn affects about a quarter of Mozambique’s population, who depend upon the river’s natural support systems for their livelihoods. 

Chinese engineering company Sinohydro will lead the consortium to build the US$2.3 billion project. According to local media, the Beijing government, in return for its support on the dam, is negotiating to have Chinese firms enter into mining projects and large-scale agriculture in the Zambezi Valley.

China’s announcement came just days before the release of a plan to help restore the lower Zambezi by changing water release patterns from Cahora Bassa Dam to more closely mimic natural flows. This study analyzed how more-natural flows would bring back ecosystems that support small-scale farmers and fishers, wildlife, large-scale farmers, and public health. Experts say the restoration effort could be undermined by Mphanda Nkuwa, which will require Cahora Bassa to operate according to its current destructive patterns. The new dam will also reduce the natural flow of river sediments that are critical to the delta’s health.

Electricity from the 1,300MW dam would be used for export and to attract energy intensive industries to Mozambique, but this power would come at a high price. Some 1,400 people would be displaced by the dam, and an untold number by the transmission lines. The project would compromise the livelihoods of an estimated 200,000 subsistence farmers and fishers living downstream. Says Anabela Lemos of the local group Justiça Ambiental, “Currently, there is no plan to compensate downstream communities. Adding insult to injury, those who are most impacted by the dam’s negative impacts will not benefit from its electricity, as it is too expensive to extend transmission lines to rural villages, and in any event they could not afford to pay for electricity.” (Read their press release on the announcement)

A new risk assessment by a South African academic details the dam’s expected social impacts and predicts that Mphanda Nkuwa will leave thousands worse off. Author James Morrissey states, “Given the current compensation plan, the apparent indicators of political risk and level of local participation, this project represents a developmental initiative which is neither just in terms of the level of risk it will generate nor equitable in terms of its likely distribution of potential gains and losses. As such, funding should be withheld from the project.”

The project itself risks becoming uneconomic because of climate change. Scientists predict the Zambezi will see substantial reductions to its flow because of reduced precipitation.

“This project may be good for the relationship between China and the Mozambique government, but it’s not good for the relationship between our government and the rural poor,” says Lemos. “If the government wants what is best for Mozambique, the dam should be stopped, and efforts to restore the Zambezi prioritized.”

Learn more about China’s dam-building in Africa