Zambia halts plans to dam the Luangwa River

The government of Zambia has halted plans to build a hydropower megadam on the Luangwa River, one of the longest remaining free-flowing rivers in southern Africa.

WWF reports that the Zambian government has cancelled a pre-feasibility study for the Ndevu Gorge Power Project, proposed by MDH South Africa (Pty) Limited, which would have cost $1.26 billion and generated between 235 and 240 megawatts of power if completed. The government’s decision effectively puts an end to the project, WWF said, calling the outcome “a major boost for communities and wildlife.”

The 1,100-kilometer (about 684-mile) Luangwa lies at the bottom of a wide rift valley in Zambia’s Eastern Province, where it is surrounded by both natural landscapes and encroaching human development.

Two large, iconic national parks are located along the river: South Luangwa National Park and North Luangwa National Park. The river supports an abundance of megafauna, including Zambia’s reintroduced black rhinos, elephants, hippos, leopards, lions, and the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe, as well as more than 400 of Zambia’s 732 species of birds.

Some 25 chiefdoms also rely on the Luangwa River for water, food, and livelihoods. The entire economy of the Luangwa Valley, based primarily on tourism and agriculture, is reliant on the river.

“I wish to thank [the] government for listening to our plea as Luembe has the potential to become another area of wildlife tourism in a few years,” Senior Chief Luembe of the Nsenga people said in a statement. “The dam would have disturbed the free movement of wildlife in the Luangwa Valley. There are other means that can supply an equivalent amount of electricity like solar power and windmills that can be installed along the Muchinga escarpment, with less damage to the environment.”

More than 200,000 people had signed a petition calling for the legal protection of the river. Critics of the dam project argued that fragmentation of the Luangwa would threaten wildlife and freshwater fish stocks, as well as the agriculture and tourism that local communities rely on.

According to a preliminary study of the environmental impacts of the proposed dam prepared in 2017 by scientists at California State University, Monterey Bay, if the Ndevu Gorge Power Project were to be completed, it would “irreversibly alter the free-flowing Luangwa River in Eastern Zambia.”

The study states that “The reservoir would inundate 29.5% of the length of the Luangwa River within South Luangwa National Park, at least six safari camps, and as much as 80% of adjacent hunting areas. It would inundate portions of at least six chiefdoms adjacent to the river. The reservoir would inundate much of the length of the Luangwa that these protected areas, hunting areas and chiefdoms currently have access to. It would also reduce the area of valuable wildlife corridor between South Luangwa National Park and Lower Zambezi National Park — which is already bounded by human encroachment on either side of the river — by 50% of its length and 24% of its width.”

The dam would likely have caused a number of hydrological impacts upstream and downstream of the reservoir, as well, according to the study: “Potential impacts include: backwater effects, delta formation above the reservoir, channel incision, floodplain isolation and disruption of sediment transport mechanisms.”

A study recently published in Nature found that two-thirds of the world’s 242 longest rivers are no longer free-flowing, mainly because so many of them have been fragmented by dams. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 determined that freshwater species have experienced an 83 percent decline globally since 1970, the most severe population reductions found for any group of vertebrates, and that diminished river connectivity is one of the chief drivers of those losses.

“Keeping the Luangwa river free flowing is the best decision for both people and nature, and WWF commends the government for halting the dam and instead seeking lower impact, renewable alternatives to power Zambia’s development, ” Nachilala Nkombo, WWF Zambia Country Director, said in a statement.

Source: Mongabay