Its cup runneth over, despite the odds. The Luangwa River has been saved.
The 1,100-kilometre river at the heart of the southern extension of Africa’s Great Rift Valley is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in Southern Africa, and it looks as if it will stay that way — for now — following an unexpected government decision in Zambia to overrule what, just a few short weeks ago, looked like a rubber-stamped go-ahead to build a hydropower dam that would have blocked the river and disrupted its flow for good.
That’s no small feat in a region that — much like Brazil and other faraway lands — has encouraged the building of more and more power dams of late, regardless of the consequences to the surrounding environment and its attendant ecosystems.
It’s a part of the world, after all, that is home to an increasing number of people, yet is desperately short of the power needed to sustain a growing population and economy.
The Luangwa is home to some of the most pristine habitat for elephants, hippos, lions, reintroduced black rhinos, endemic Thornicroft’s giraffes and countless other, less well-known but just as important wildlife left on the African continent. Some 400 of Zambia’s estimated 732 bird species call the Luangwa home.
A dam would have disrupted not just the wildlife but the people who live there, or did live there until recently — people like “Helen” (pictured above). The Luangwa is where Helen’s husband fishes, she gathers water and her family is buried for eternal rest. Like many rural Zambians, according to the World Wilde Fund for Nature, her family doesn’t own the land, so when a foreign developer moved in and built a fence along the river — blocking her access to the water — her family was forced to leave.
In all, some 25 chiefdoms rely on the Luangwa for fresh water and food, and the river is vital to both
agriculture and tourism.
Now Helen and her family may return, thanks to the government’s decision. The WWF has been lobbying alongside other conservation-minded NGOs for legal protection for the Luangwa, to safeguard it from threats that include not just dams but also deforestation, unsustainable farming and illegal hunting. More than 200,000 people signed a petition asking the the Zambian government to sign long-term legal protections into law, now that the dam project has been officially halted.
Zambia’s future energy needs must be addressed, and WWF and other conservation groups are arguining the case for a future based on renewable energy that’s both low carbon and low cost.
Time is pressing, the conservationists argue. Fewer than a third of the world’s longest rivers remain free flowing, mostly due to dams. The Nile is already dammed between Egypt and Sudan; another, equally extensive dam project is under construction in Ethiopia. The issue matters because scientists now believe that dams — and the fragmentation they cause — are one of the deciding factors in an 83% decline in freshwater wildlife populations since 1970.
A feasibility study for the Ndevu Gorge Power Project, as the dam was called, projected costs to be as much as $1.25 billion USD. The dam, if completed, would have generated up to 240 megawatts of power. The World Wide Fund for Nature says the government’s decision has effectively put an end to the project.
The decision is “a major boost for communities and wildlife,” according to the WWF.