Read, Debate: Engage.

Renewable energy vs. livelihoods: a green solution gone awry

September 10, 2023
tags:#Cameroon, #hydropower, #renewable energy, #Fisheries
by:Louvier Kindo Tombe
In Cameroon, a hydroelectric power dam project is jeopardising the livelihoods of local fishermen, highlighting the challenges that often accompany green energy initiatives.

We reached Batchenga, a small village in the Lekie division of Cameroon's Center region, at a time when fishing activities were at their peak just six years ago. We were received by Essengue Ebolo, the president and spokesperson of the locality's association of fishermen association, who sat helplessly in front of his unfinished building. It had been over six months since he last went fishing.

"We have now been denied total access to the Sanaga river," he said.

Over 300 fishermen who belong to the Association of Fishermen of Nkol - Ndji- Batchenga (APENNBA) saw their fishing activities come to a halt due to the construction of a run-of-river dam over the Sanaga river - a project that began in 2018 and significantly disrupted Sanaga's riparian ecosystem, causing the dispersion of most fish species far away from the local area.

But the disturbance of the ecosystem has also resulted in the proliferation of health risks, with the most prominent being river blindness in communities situated closer to the dam site.

The residents of the affected villages were promised financial compensation for the activities they would lose and for the lands to be used by the project, and were guaranteed that their children would be recruited by the project. They were also promised compensation for potential health hazards resulting from the project, including the provision of hospital equipment.

However, these promises have not been upheld, and life conditions in the area have continued to deteriorate.

Locals stated that families have been torn apart because breadwinners can no longer afford to provide food and cover healthcare costs and education expenses. This in turn resulted in a notable increase in the number of school dropouts and a surge in crime rates among the area's youth, who were previously engaged in fishing and related activities.

As we spoke to Ebolo about the challenges his community is facing, he went into the house and brought out his fishing net. Fishing, he said, is an activity that exists only in his mind at the moment.

"This is a time when even non-fishermen used to visit the river and pick up fish with basins, but all the sites have been swallowed by the dam," he recalled, adding that "The company is just indifferent towards our plights."

The project 

The Nachtigal hydroelectric dam project spans across four divisions of the Center region: Upper Sanaga, Mbam and Kim, Lekie and Mfoundi. It measures roughly 2,000 metres in lengths, stands at a height of 14 meters and is expected to generate 420 MW of electricity. 

According to a study conducted by Action for a Sustainable Environment (ASE), a Cameroonian civil society organisation and member of the IFI Synergy platform coordinated by Simon Njal Njock, the construction of  the dam is predicated to release approximately 469,342 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually, which will be detrimental to the local environment. 

The Nachtigal Hydro Power Company (NHPC), which is responsible for the construction of the dam, however, is trying to reassure locals that it will protect the area's riparian ecosystem.

But so far fishermen in Batchenga are facing the same experiences their counterparts in other regions of the country have suffered in the wake of constructions of similar projects.

In the case of the Lom Panger reservoir dam in the East region of Cameroon, for instance, the project had a substantial impact on local fishermen. The water level rose significantly, which made it challenging for the residents to fish, as they lacked the necessary skills to adapt. Consequently, fishermen from neighbouring countries, primarily Chad, who used modern fishing methods, began to exploit the waters.

The project also decimated forested areas and farmlands, preventing most agricultural activities and pushing the farmers to embrace other activities. 

A Controversial solution

NHPC initially promised a financial compensation of USD 456 per year for a period of three years to the affected fishermen belonging to the APENNBA association. The sum was later increased in 2021 to USD 2,300 per year, following negotiations. 

In fact, as per some local chiefs, this compensation amount has been paid, but most of the fishermen under APENNBA were not included in this compensation, and they continue to seek financial redress from the company.

In addition to promising financial compensation and offering relocation pathways to locals affected by the hydro power project, NHPC is also formulating a 'National Fishery Action Plan' on the Sanaga river. Nut while this initiative is set to be the first of its kind designed for a run-of-river dam in central Africa, many of the affected fishermen have reportedly been excluded from this project.

"We of APENNBA were not invited for the consultations in view of developing the project," Ebolo told this FairPlanet. 

The plan is to create a reservoir that will contain fish and grant designated individuals permission to fish there. According to NHPC, the project is slated to be completed by August 2024, and is expected to have an estimated annual fish yield of around 30 tonnes.

The company also intends to construct fishing warehouses in the area that would enable fishermen to easily sell their products. Those identified will also be trained on how to fish in such reservoirs. 

"This setting up of the reservoir will further swallow the land and forest areas along the banks of the river, [which in turn] will affect CO2 absorption," Mbolle Veronique, an environmental expert at Green Development Advocate (GDA), told FairPlanet. "Water currents and the ecosystem would be impacted."

In March of this year, during a meeting in which the project was presented to local communities, it was revealed that only about 55 fishermen would benefit from the project in the four divisions impacted. To put this in perspective: the Lekie division alone contains more than 300 fishermen.

"Our association was not even invited to the meeting," Ebolo said. "NHPC is working with some selected individuals, including village chiefs, and is ignoring a fully registered association with more than 300 fishermen."

But when we arrived in Batchenga, there was still no indication of any construction of a fishing reservoir anywhere in the entire Lekie division. "We hear they tried something in the Upper Sanaga division, but it failed because of high currents and they are trying to relocate it elsewhere not here in the Lekie," a fisherman in the Lekie division who requested to stay anonymous told FairPlanet.

Even NHPC has admitted that the construction process will be challenging. Speaking recently on the Fishery Action Plan, a spokesperson of the company conceded that "it is more challenging to set up a fishing reservoir on a run-of-river dam."

"It requires specific technical skills, good coordination of the annual fishing schedule and mastery of the operation of the plant," Asser Yoke, a fishery manager at NHPC, said.

Fishermen in Batchenga now say that even if they were to be included in the project, the fact that the Fishery Action Plan will not encompass all four divisions affected by the dam project poses a significant challenge.

"They [expect] us to leave our division to travel in order to fish in another division where we don't master the river,"  Abouna Boro, an APENNBA fisherman, lamented. "Our colleagues who once dared to cross the Sanaga river to fish in the Upper Sanaga died as their boat capsised."

An inquiry into the matter by FairPlanet could not confirm the exact number of people who were killed fishing in unfamiliar waters. 

Meanwhile, the solution proposed by NHPC aligns with the government's strategy of import substitution, aiming to boost local production of fish products and encourage their consumption within the region.

In 2019, fish production in Cameroon reached an estimated 9,100 tonnes, significantly falling short of the annual demand, which stands at 500,000 tonnes. In that same year, roughly 18.5 million tonnes of fish were imported, amounting to about FCFA 180 billion, according to the Ministry of Trade.

The way forward

Fishermen in Batchenga have reportedly been waiting for compensation from NHPC for over 4 years now. Some of them, primarily village chiefs and their friends, are accused of colluding with the company to collect money in the name of fishermen and stealing it.

Furthermore, it appears that the current iteration of the Fishery Action Plan is doing nothing to improve the situation for fishermen. Officials at APENNBA believe it is time for them to explore other employment opportunities.

"We cannot continue relying on something that is slipping off our hands," Ebolo said. "You cannot fish where you don't have access to the water."

Since the project has brought fishing activities in the community to a halt, adapting to new activities has proven challenging, and the financial situation of Batchenga's residents has grown increasingly precarious while the cost of living in the area has been rising.

In pursuit of new opportunities, many fishermen in the area are gradually showing interest in alternative livelihoods such as crop cultivation, including maize, cassava and plantains. Others are venturing into poultry and pig farming.

They are supported by NGOs that provide training in various aspects including proper soil management, seed handling, and, notably, how to collaborate as a team and form collective initiative groups for farming. These organisations also offer guidance on economic diversification.

One such NGO is the IFI Synergy Group, which has been working with the local population in Batchenga since 2021 and organises training sessions.

"It is good for the fishermen to master other activities. We train them mainly on crop cultivation and livestock rearing," said Ekane Nkwelle, a project manager at Green Development Advocate (GDA) - a member of the IFI Synergy Group.

About two thirds of APENNBA's fishermen (approximately 200) have acquired skills in project management thus far. All of them are, however, still facing challenges launching their project due to a lack of funding. About a dozen of them started small-scale activities just in order to survive using what little savings they had. 

"Let them keep the Fishery Action Plan and compensate us financially as planned. We are now ready to start something different - all we need is the money," Ebolo said.

"I used to sell pepper soup fresh fish in the village, but today I am trying to set up a small garden around the compound," said the wife of a fisherman in the locality who resorted to taking odd jobs to feed his family.

Some of the area's fishermen are now demanding up to FCFA 30 million in compensation from NHPC. "All our grievances are already on their table, we just expect them to act accordingly," one of them shared anonymously. 

FairPlanet attempted to book an appointment with NHPC officials in Yaounde, but was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that the company has so far paid USD 334,000 as compensation to fishermen. This amount comes from a total budget of USD 14,368,000 designated for environmental responsibility management.

Image by Edouard Tamba.

Article written by:
Louvier Kindo Tombe
Embed from Getty Images
Over 300 fishermen belonging to APENNBA saw their fishing activities come to a halt due to the construction of a run-of-river dam over the Sanaga river.
Embed from Getty Images
The Nachtigal hydroelectric dam project spans across four divisions of the Center region: Upper Sanaga, Mbam and Kim, Lekie and Mfoundi.
Embed from Getty Images
The residents of the affected villages were promised financial compensation for the activities they would lose and for the lands to be used by the project. The majority of the money has yet to reach them.