By: Rudo Sanyanga, former Africa Program Director

Although I had spent many years working on the Zambezi River, the lower Zambezi region in Mozambique was unfamiliar to me. I had crossed the Zambezi at the Tete Bridge a few times before but had never been on the stretch between the Cahora Bassa Dam and Tete town in Mozambique, the site for the proposed Mphanda Nkuwa Dam. Except for the delta there is very little written specifically about this area and I have always been curious to check it out. I therefore readily agreed when our partners Justiça Ambiental (JA!) asked me to come and speak at an event marking the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14th in Tete. On that day we gathered with displaced communities from Tete coal mine developments as well as the communities that live in the area that will be inundated by the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam, to remind ourselves of the value of rivers in our lives.This homestead and fields would be drowned by Mphanda reservoir

The day after the event in Tete I travelled with our partners to the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam area on the Zambezi River shore where we camped for two nights. Being on the shore of the mighty Zambezi, I once again felt a strong sense of deja vu. It conjured up memories of my 20 or so years working on the Zambezi River. I pictured the rich expansive Barotse and Kafue floodplains in the upper Zambezi, the world renowned Victoria Falls, the spectacular gorges in the middle Zambezi region, large numbers of wildlife that drink and find prey on this river basin, the Kariba Dam, and sadly the plight of the Tonga people, displaced and impoverished due to the Kariba Dam wall. It reminded me of the rest of this mighty river stretching for about 2300 km upstream of were I stood and how misguided developments can wipe all that away. During our stay we met some of the community members who had not attended the event in Tete, and we spoke at length about their concerns regarding the proposed dam construction.

Construction of the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam will commence once financing has been secured. As of now the power purchase agreement between Eskom (South Africa’s Power Authority) and the Government of Mozambique has not been signed. A resettlement plan for the communities is still unavailable to the public and to the affected communities.

It remains uncertain what will happen to the communities from the villages of Chirodzi, Senangwe and Chikokoma who live along the Zambezi River and whose land and property would be flooded. Two hundred families, approximately 1,000 people, would have to be moved to make way for the dam. A Mphanda Nkuwa project liaison officer has been having “consultation” meetings with the communities; from what we have heard, these meetings have been geared towards making people accept the relocation terms. At times government officials attend the community meetings. In the presence of government officials, communities say that they are scared to ask questions, as they fear being singled out for intimidation.

Despite these meetings, the communities remain unclear of the full resettlement package and how the relocation will be implemented. Right now all they know is that they will be moved from their land and they will be settled somewhere tens of kilometers from the reservoir shore. They do not know when they will be moved, or the exact place they will go – all they know is that there are going to be away from the river shores. The form of compensation has not been fully or transparently disclosed – just that they will be compensated for their houses. A model house, which is built of local bricks and has a straw roof, was constructed in one of the villages as a demonstration to the community of what lies ahead. Some are excited about the prospect of jobs that have been promised, but the large majority are not sure how they will cope or earn a future living if they are not employed. One young man said he does not know how else to survive apart from fishing. He has lived all his life on the shores of the Zambezi with his family and a life away from the river scares him. “If I had a choice I would not want to move. I of course also want a better life but I am not sure I will achieve that having been removed from what I know best,” said Alfredo.Proposed site of the Mpdanda Nkuwa Dam

The Mphanda Nkuwa communities are isolated and scattered on both shores, and depend heavily on the river for their livestock production, transport, agriculture and fisheries. The rainfall pattern in the area is erratic and practicing agriculture away from the valley is not expected to be productive. The families have all established two sets of fields; one set on the valley floor and the second on higher ground. The upland fields are used when the river is in flood, and for growing sorghum. This is the life they know.

Fish contributes a large part of the daily meals. The fish catches include the old Zambezi riverine species such as tigerfish, cichlids, schenga (Distichodus schenga), squeaker, barbus, eel and electric fish. The eel’s territory will be further reduced because of this dam. No doubt the Zambezi represents a means for the community to attain food security because even during drought years the communities can still harvest from their lower fields and catch fish for food.

The villages lack basic amenities except for a primary school, whose catchment area exceeds 10 km, a long distance for young children to travel everyday. The pylons carrying electricity from Cabora Bassa pass by 50 km south to supply Maputo, South Africa, and Tete town. The communities have no illusions that they will have electricity even after the dam is built, as they cannot afford it. This is the story of many communities moved to make way for large hydropower dams and it mirrors the Tonga people’s lives after construction of the Kariba reservoir.

I wonder what it would cost to let the mighty Zambezi flow naturally – at least for the remaining undammed segments – and to protect the livelihoods of its people?

Featured image: Proposed site of the Mpdanda Nkuwa Dam | Photo by International Rivers