Dams on the Zambezi have devastated the environment and increased poverty for millions of people affected by their hydrological changes, but done little to improve access to modern energy services for the region’s poor majority. Yet despite the poor record of dams in Southern Africa, the Mozambican government’s energy plan is heavily hydropower-dependent, at a time when climate change is making hydropower more risky and the wise use of water resources even more critical.
The Zambezi is, even more than most of Africa’s major rivers, thought to be extremely vulnerable to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated it has “very high confidence” that Southern Africa will “suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change”, while a recent University of Cape Town study shows small decrease in rainfall could cause drastic reduction in river flows in Africa, including the Zambezi. At the same time, rain is coming more erratically, causing worsening flooding that has devastated the lower Zambezi numerous times in recent years – a situation that can be worsened by dams, which tend to release water in large, uncontrollable waves. These changes are particularly affecting the poor, who depend more closely on natural resources and a healthy environment.
NGOs are calling for “no regrets” energy sector planning that helps the region adapt to a changing climate. Because plans for large dams in the region are being driven in part by South Africa’s energy needs, there is also a need for a grid-wide analysis that would evaluate all clean energy options appropriate for the region as a whole. Basic human needs in the face of adapting to climate change should be prioritized over large-scale energy export and industrialization schemes.
Dam planning in Mozambique has also been closed to public debate. The Maputo-based NGO Justica Ambiental in 2007 hosted a major public meeting on the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam to open up that debate. The group has for years called on the government to undertake a thorough assessment of Mozambique’s energy needs and options as specified by the World Commission on Dams.
Finally, to ensure the Zambezi continues to be “Africa’s River of Life,” there must be greater effort to restore the river to a semblance of its former self. The toll of having 30 large dams blocking its flows for many decades will only worsen with climate change. Efforts are now underway that aim to restore the river’s health through improved management of upstream dams. One study reveals that a small (less than 3%) reduction in hydropower production at Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa Dam would enable “artificial flood releases” that could result in very significant improvements in ecosystem-based livelihoods of downstream residents.