Eskom's role in the social and environmental degradation of the Zambezi

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South Africa is one of the power houses of Africa with a strong private sector interested in spreading their investments throughout the continent. This could be of great benefit to sustainable development of other African countries were South African companies using the same standards they use at home. South Africa’s dialogued system arising from its new democracy had as one of its core goals the redress of the unbalances caused by apartheid, this contributed to the achievement of high social standards that have influenced positively its development. One such area is the water sector, where South Africa is regarded as one of the world leaders in legislation and rights. South Africa was the first country to contextualize the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report, after a multi-stakeholder process involving DWAF, Eskom, dam builders, affected dam communities and many other stakeholders. The WCD report was a multi-stakeholder global initiative chaired by Hon. Kader Asmal that analyzed over 100 dams worldwide assessing the shortfalls, problems, areas of conflict, success stories and solutions to ensure dams do not impoverish people and the environment from where they rely. Through a very inclusive process South Africa has now a consensual multi-stakeholder position on dams to ensure they will not cause the harms of the past. However, Eskom’s involvement in the neighbor Mozambique currently upholds and may even worsen the type of problems the new South Africa tries to avoid at home: deep social and environmental problems which only benefit the already rich.

One of the Zambezi’s main resources is hydroelectric production, estimated at 12,000 MW, of which only 2,300 MW have been explored, 2,075 MW coming from Cahora Bassa dam . The main consumer of this energy is South Africa, Eskom (approx. 70%). Not only is Eskom the main consumer, but has a monopoly of the region and is one of the main diving forces behind the further exploration of the remaining 12,000 MW.

Cahora Bassa dam, from where Eskom gets the power is one of most environmentally destructive major dams in Africa according to a United Nations research (Annex 1). It doesn’t meet the flow requirements necessary to sustain people and livelihoods and its operation is responsible for losses of $10 million every year in the prawn industry since it was built in 1974 (see Annex 2). This is worrying as prawns are second most important source of income to the country from which thousands of people depend. In addition, the dam management is causing the drying up of the richest wetland in East Africa, the Zambezi Delta (Annex 1). These environmental problems which have severe social implications, around 100,000 farmers along the river margins loose year after year its production due to the irregular discharges of the dam when less expected, and fish population has declined leaving people with strong nutritional deficits.

Yet, further concerns exist around future developments in the Zambezi. As mentioned earlier the river has a huge hydroelectric potential, which is a major part of the future investment in the region and will promote the second wave of investment in the form of energy intensive industries such as Aluminum smelters. In August 2003 both the Mozambican and South African governments signed a memorandum of understanding in which the two sides agreed to explore the chance to create a Northern Mozambique Development Initiative (NMDI) by Electricidade de Moçambique and Eskom Holdings. The NMDI would encourage all power and energy-intensive projects in the Zambezi Valley, including the construction of Mphanda Nkuwa dam and a possible aluminum smelter in Beira. Yet the other contents of this MoU have been withdrawn from the public.

Mphanda Nkuwa (1200 MW) which will produce peak power electricity mostly for industries in the Johannesburg and Pretoria area, will cause two daily mini floods which will worsen the situation of an already impoverished population. Approximately 100,000 people risk loosing their livelihoods, of which the official plans are that only 1,400 of them will be compensated. In the EIA process WCD guidelines have been almost completely disregarded, people has not been consulted, many still believing wrongly that the electricity to be produced will be for Mozambican rural areas.

At present Eskom has only used its mighty influence with Cahora Bassa to exert its power in the form of economic benefits, as in the negotiation of favorable power rates, which up to 2004 were seven times lower than the SA market price. Eskom has never questioned the social and environmental costs of the power produced by Cahora Bassa. In the case of Mphanda Nkuwa, being one of the key driving forces behind its construction, through various “confidential” agreements with the Mozambican government Eskom is pushing for such project regardless of the social and environmental impacts it will bring, protected behind the principle of non-intervention in your neighbor’s affairs. Is this the type of socially responsible investment that SA would want at home? Do these types of projects help attaining the “African Renaissance” and bringing sustained development to Africans?

South Africa has a high moral ground before its African neighbors and the world, however through the role of Eskom in the Zambezi, its contribution seems to be no different to that of the abusive initiatives from the developed western world which cause so much damaged throughout Africa. It is time that Eskom uses the same standards in Africa as it uses at home, one responsible way of doing this would be promoting and integrating the application of WCD principles in the Zambezi.

Justiça Ambiental (JA!)