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Is Zambia’s hydropower dependency risking the environment?

August 31, 2022
topics: Renewables
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Zambia
tags: Africa, hydropower, renewable energy, Zambia

In its bid to expand reliance on hydroelectric energy sources, Zambia has announced an increasing number of hydropower projects in recent years. One of them raises particular objections from conservationists.

Nsumbu National Park is located on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika in Zambia's northernmost tip, covering an area of slightly more than 2,000 square kilometres. It also encompases 100 kilometres of the Lake's most pristine shores. Its natural beauty ranges from sandy beaches, sheer cliffs, rocky coves and natural bays to the interior's rugged hills and deep valleys. 

But the Lufubu River, which flows through the park and empties into Lake Tanganyika, might soon be developed for a hydropower project - a prospect that some local conservationists oppose. 

"It’s a large perennial river," said Craig Zytkow, manager of the Nsumbu Tanganyika Conservation Program at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, "and very much linked to the ecosystem of the national park, wetlands and waterfalls."

The Frankfurt Zoological Society is an international conservation organisation that undertook the effort of protecting the Nsumbu Tanganyika Ecosystem in 2017 by fighting wildlife poaching and working with communities to limit illegal fishing. Its success in various areas saw an improved sustainability and biodiversity that benefit people, flora and fauna. 

According to Zytkow, large-scale hydropower projects like the one in Nsumbu would not only disturb the flow of the river, but also flood some areas of the national park and bring unknown consequences downstream.  

"As we do not understand the full ecology of the river, the contributions of the river to Lake Tanganyika and how that affects nutrients flow to the lake, there [would be] a lot of unknowns if the dam is built," Zytkow said, pointing to the project’s possible negative impacts on fisheries and wetland habitats.

He has filed a protest letter to the government, highlighting the risks of the proposed project, and is still awaiting response. 

LOOKING BEYOND HYDRO

Most of Zambia's power is produced in the south of the country, and the delivery of power to the north is a difficult and costly process. Constructing a hydropower plant in Nsumbu would therefore make the north more self-reliant when it comes to energy.

But Zambia's challenge in achieving energy independence transcends the hurdles of transport. 

Currently, with national access to power remaining at around 31 percent, as much as 85 percent of the existing electricity generation capacity in Zambia is made up of hydropower, while there remains room for development in the country's wide range of additional renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

But for many years the government chose to stick to hydropower. 

"The first large hydropower plant was built at Zambia’s Victoria Falls with station A in 1936," Christopher Mubemba, Zambia’s Country Manager at the Southern Africa Energy Program (SAEP) told FairPlanet.

"In the late 1950s, the Kariba dam was built, and in the 1960s the machines at Kariba were installed. The Kafue Gorge was then built in the 1970s, which was also hydro.

"This proved to be a problem when the effects of changing climate brought severe drought in the early 1990s and in the 2000s," he added. "This led to loadshedding of up to 10 hours per day and ultimately affected some of the SMEs in Zambia, leading to reduced production and sometimes closure of businesses."

Chanda Karen Chalwe, junior energy advisor at Cities and Infrastructure for Growth Zambia, assesses that due to water inflow reductions in the main hydro reservoirs in the country, "there has been clear steering from the government and other stakeholders to diversify the energy mix and reduce the country’s over-reliance on hydro power and invest in other renewable energy technologies."

"The general perception is that Zambia’s electricity source is largely clean," Chalwe said, "except that there is a need to create resilience and avoid power shortfalls resulting from climate change impacts, such as droughts, as experienced in 2015/16 and 2019/2020, which is costly to the economy."

Chalwe also pointed out that, according to studies, Zambia has a huge hydro generation potential of about 6 GW, but only about 2.5 GW has so far been developed. 

Zambia’s Ministry of Energy recently launched a Renewable Energy Strategic and Action Plan for the country. In its 30-year plan, which awaits final approval, the government outlines "the road-map for creating resilience in Zambia’s energy mix by adopting solar and wind technology on a large-scale as well as other technologies such as mini-hydro, biomass and geothermal," said Chalwe. 

In addition, a coalition of enterprises announced this year a plan to build a 430MW solar and wind project in Zambia.

"It will help the country realise some of its untapped solar and wind resources by attracting large-scale foreign investment and adding significant renewable energy capacity," said Anthony Mukutuma, general manager of FQM Kansanshi Mine, a mining company aiming to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent using clean energy generated from the project. 

Increasing PUBLIC AWARENESS 

As environmental awareness and activism are still not deeply entrenched in much of Zambia, most protests against projects potentially hazardous the environment, like the hydropower plant in Nsumbu National Park, are conducted by a relatively small cohort of environmentalists and are not endorsed by the broad population. 

Another challenge highlighted by Chalwe of Cities and Infrastructure for Growth Zambia is the ineffective and inconsistent rhetoric on climate issues espoused by awareness campaigns of different organisations.

Mubemba of SAEP, on his part, says that environmental activists in Zambia would benefit from increased visibility, resources and leadership in general. "One gets the impression that they are subdued in their advocacy," he said. 

For Zytkow, strong community engagement in the form of representation helped gain insight into people's interests and concerns when it comes to conservation efforts, and consequently brought transformation. "People can change habits quite easily, but it hasn’t been easy in the early days of conservation efforts," he added. 

Nsumbu National Park, with its viable wildlife population and highly functional ecosystem of river, swamp, forest and lake, is incredibly diverse, Zytkow said. But he worries that widely-held misperceptions decrease public interest in it.

For him, "Every conservation project has its challenges. One of the biggest ones is that a big landscape without people like Nsumu is not perceived as a global asset, and that national parks should be self-sustaining, for example through tourism."

For Chalwe, the apparent challenge of deepening the understanding of the value of natural resources among rural communities could stem from high illiteracy rates, which results in "overexploitation of energy resources and inability to see value in certain natural resources," she argued. 

Pursuing the country's development goals in a sustainable manner, these stakeholders and experts agree, must coincide with a collective environmental awareness campaign. 

Image by Simon Matzinger

Article written by:
Robert-Bociaga__cropWzAsMTMsNDU4LDQ1OF0_FillWzI4OSwyODld
Robert Bociaga
Author
Zambia
The first large hydropower plant was built at Zambia’s Victoria Falls with station A in 1936.
The first large hydropower plant was built at Zambia’s Victoria Falls with station A in 1936.
© Henning Supertramp
Protests against projects potentially hazardous the environment are conducted by a relatively small cohort of environmentalists.
Protests against projects potentially hazardous the environment are conducted by a relatively small cohort of environmentalists.
© Jeffrey Barbee/Thomson Reuters Foundation
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