Kunene River, Namibia
The Kunene River is one of just five perennial rivers in arid Namibia, and is considered a precious resource by those who live near it. The river has for centuries supported the semi–nomadic Himba people, who are one of Africa’s most successful remaining pastoralist peoples. The government of Namibia has long intended to build a huge hydroelectric scheme on the Kunene.
The original plan to build the giant Epupa Dam – whose reservoir would evaporate twice as much water as the entire country uses each year, in a country that continually suffers from drought and water shortages – appears to have been dropped for good. But at this writing, the governments of Namibia and Angola have stated they will build the downstream Baynes Dam "as soon as possible" – a project that will spare the spectacular Epupa Falls and inundate much less land, but whose impacts remain unknown. The Himba were not consulted about the decision, and remain opposed to either project.
Climate change is likely to heighten the risks of hydroelectricity in the driest parts of Africa, a fact that Namibia’s government recognizes (“The magnitude and reliability of power supply from [hydroelectric] projects will be impacted by climate change to a degree that is currently poorly quantified,” states a 2002 government report on climate change). The country is already dependent for up to two-thirds of its electricity on hydropower. The Kunene's hydrology is highly variable (Birdlife Internationalthe states it can vary as much as 14-fold from year to year), making electricity generation impossible in times of drought.
The 200-meter-high Baynes Dam would flood 57 sq.km. of Himba tribal lands, including ancestral graves and critical riparian ecosystems. The Himba believe that building the dam will destroy their livelihoods and culture, and have said they do not want the dam on their lands. The cost of the project is unknown, but it has long been considered the more costly option of the two proposed dams.
Today, Namibia is beginning to develop its natural gas fields, is adding a fourth turbine to the existing Ruacana Dam, is considering wind and solar power projects, and has undertaken some energy efficiency programs. But with a looming energy shortage and a desire to be less dependent on South Africa (which until recently has supplied half the nation’s electricity), large dams such as Baynes, Popa Falls, and even faraway Grand Inga (on the Congo River) continue to be favored in official energy planning documents.