Zambezi, River of Life

The Zambezi River is Southern Africa’s “River of Life.” The fourth largest river system in Africa, it drains seven countries and supports millions of people, who make use of its rich fisheries, forests, water, and rich floodplain soils. The lower Zambezi in Mozambique is the most productive and biologically diverse tropical floodplains in Africa.

Yet the Zambezi is also one of the most heavily dammed rivers in Africa, with at least 30 large storage reservoirs holding back its flow. Four of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams—Kariba, Itezhi-Tezhi, Kafue and Cahora Bassa—have stopped most of the river’s annual floods with their huge reservoirs. These reservoirs are unsuitable habitat for most river species. The changes to the river have brought great hardships to the people and wildlife of the Zambezi basin, especially in the lower Zambezi valley of Mozambique. For 25 years, erratic and mistimed flooding below Cahora Bassa Dam has adversely affected the living standards of hundreds of thousands of downstream households and decimated one of the most productive and diverse wetland ecosystems in Africa, the Zambezi Delta.

Significant work is currently underway to restore the lower Zambezi by improving how water is released from Cahora Bassa. Water release patterns that more closely mimic natural flows will improve the richness of the degraded downstream environment.

Yet those efforts could be undermined by new dams planned for the river, including Mphanda Nkuwa, just downstream of Cahora Bassa. International Rivers is working with local groups to stop the worst new dams, help restore justice to dam-affected communities, find better alternatives to hydropower, and press for restoration of the river through better dam management.

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