Tribespeople Invited to "Comment" on Dam Feasibility Study

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A massive feasibility study on the Epupa Dam, proposed for the Kunene River in northern Namibia, will be presented to the Namibian Cabinet on October 22. The study will be presented to the Himba people who will be affected by the project on October 27, followed by an open public hearing on October 29. A meeting to accept objections, comments and opinions on the study’s findings will be held November 15.

The leader of the Himba to be resettled for the dam, Chief Hikuminue Kapika, recently said if the dam was built, “we will all gather there and they have to build the dam on top of us.” The Himba have suffered police harrassment in recent months as they have met with their legal counsel to discuss the project, prompting federal courts to intervene on their behalf (background stories on this are available from International Rivers, or the web site for “The Namibian,”

The US$7 million study, funded by Norwegian and Swedish aid agencies, studied four different dam sites for the controversial project. The study looked at the economic, environmental and social repercussions, which are expected to be major. The change in the river could damage rich offshore fisheries, and destroy downstream habitat crucial to wildlife in the arid region. Drought, which occurs every four years in Namibia, could also result in unreliable power production, as it has for other dams in southern Africa. The dam’s reservoir could evaporate more water each year than the capital city of Windhoek uses annually.

Although the Namibian government now says that a final decision will not be taken until the Feasibility Study’s findings are carefully evaluated, President Sam Nujoma indicated in August that Namibia will build the dam no matter what the study recommends. “The Government will not be deterred by the misguided activities of those who want to impede economic development and upliftment of the standards of living of our people,” Nujoma told government ministers in August. And in March, the Deputy Minister of Mines and Energy, Jesaya Nyamu, said, “It is not a question of whether Epupa will be built or not, but rather where it will be built.”

A preliminary version of the feasibility study was presented at public hearings in Windhoek in October 1996. Some two dozen Himba attended those meetings to speak out against the project but, according to a US Department of State document, “translation facilities were not available and the moderator was clearly not prepared to incorporate indigenous people at the hearing.”

The Himba

For more than 500 years the Himba people of Namibia have lived in the Kunene River valley. In that time, they have survived crippling drought, war, genocide and other disasters. Now a massive proposed hydroelectric dam, described as a white elephant by European Union officials, threatens to flood the Himba’s lands, destroying forever their unique culture and way of life.

The 15,000 or so Himba people have their home in the borderlands of Namibia and Angola. The only permanent river in their territory is the Kunene, which marks the border between Angola and Namibia. The Himba are a pastoral people, and one of the last in the region to live a semi–nomadic life. Their skill and dedication as stock breeders and herders has enabled them to remain largely self sufficient and maintain their distinctive culture. The Himba managed to remain untouched by successive colonisation of what is now Namibia, first by Germany and later by South Africa’s apartheid government. War between the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) and the South African Defence Force did not, however, and the Himba were caught in the middle of a bloody conflict. Also during this time, the Himba faced a devastating drought in the early 1980s, which killed off almost 90 per cent of their herds. But today, they face a bigger threat than either of these crises: the Epupa Dam.

The Project

The Epupa Dam hydroelectric project, proposed for the heart of the Himbas’ remote lands, is being aggressively pushed by the Namibian government despite the existence of viable energy alternatives and resistance from the Himba. The US$500 million dam is considered by energy experts and other analysts to be a white elephant whose real purpose is not to supply cost–effective power, but to bring jobs to the majority Ovambo ethnic group living in the remote northern borderlands––and thereby cement political support there for the ruling party. “Maximizing employment opportunities is clearly a factor in Nampower’s thinking,” according to a classified US State Department memo from January 1997. Although the dam project has been made redundant recently by firm plans to develop Namibia’s offshore Kudu gas fields––a project that is expected to more than meet the nation’s energy needs for years to come and will be brought online much faster than Epupa––the government insists it will develop both. The US State Department has stated that Epupa would be “in direct competition not` only with Kudu gas but with other potential regional energy projects like the Pande gas fields in Mozambique.”

Traditional donor agencies find the project economically problematic, however. The World Bank stated in a 1993 report that it believes Epupa is only viable if South Africa agrees to purchase its power (an unlikely scenario, and one made all the more unlikely by Kudu gas development). The European Union has said the project will more likely become a burden on the Namibian economy rather than an asset. According to the May 15, 1995 issue of “Development Today,” the EU’s desk officer for Namibia “claimed there were no arguments in favour of the project.” Some Namibian officials and NGOs believe the controversial project could even lead to civil unrest.

The most–favored site of the four being considered, called Baynes Mountains, would entail building the tallest dam in Africa (at 203 meters). Another would flood the famed Epupa Falls, an oasis of supreme natural beauty. Any of the sites would have a huge impact on the Himba. Although only a few hundred Himba are expected to be permanently displaced, thousands more could be affected by the project, which would flood Himba graves (which are of great religious significance to them), eliminate valuable dry–season grazing and farming areas, and introduce diseases. The influx of outside labor to build the dam would have disastrous effects on the health and social stability of the pastoral Himba. With as many as 4,000 workers, nearly all coming from outside the region, the result would be a temporary town of anything from 5,000 to 10,000 people, doubling the population of the area. Few, if any, of the local population are likely to gain employment from the project, but all will be affected by the crime and prostitution that universally come with construction camps. The project’s 1993 Pre–Feasibility study noted that “the problems of health universally associated with dams and their construction would universally apply in the survey area… These relate to the introduction and spread of sexually transmitted diseases (AIDS in particular), an increase in the incidence of malaria, hepatitis, tuberculosis and the possible introduction of bilharzia.”

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