Cheaper Alternatives to the Epupa Dam

A Namibian nongovernmental organization has proposed alternative sources of power and water that could be developed instead of the controversial Epupa hydroelectric scheme and the Okavango water pipeline, an October 7 article in The Nambian reports. In an open letter to the Namibian government, Earthlife Africa’s Namibia branch states that a package of alternatives would effectively cut the cost of the existing schemes by around N$966 million (N$1 = US$0.214).

"We believe that the time has come to look at all four projects together: Epupa, Kudu, the Okavango, and desalination," the Earthlife letter states. "The many changes since each was begun, however, demand a critical reevaluation of the national water and power issue. In our view, there is a simple, cheaper and environmentally sensible way to integrate both power generation and provision of water which would make both the Epupa and Okavango projects unnecessary."

The Earthlife Namibia proposal points out shortcomings of the proposed Epupa and Okavango projects, and proposes instead a package of desalinization and natural gas projects. The group notes that although Epupa dam is supposed to make Namibia self–sufficient in power, it could fall short during periods of extended drought. And the Okavango pipeline, they said, would disrupt the ecology of the Okavango Delta and set a precedent for future increased water abstraction from the river.

Early studies for the dam recommend building the highest dam in Africa (at 203 meters), with a very large reservoir whose average surface area would be about 300 million square meters––a size that project proponents say would "drought proof" it. But as Earthlife points out, the disadvantages of a large reservoir in one of the hottest and driest regions of Southern Africa far outweigh its advantages. "Beyond social and environmental disruptions, Epupa would waste a precious water resource for good. Also, being located in a very hot and dry region, roughly 900 million cubic meters of water would be lost by evaporation from the large dam surface. This is 45 times the envisaged abstraction from the Okavango river," Earthlife said. Namibia has one of the highest evaporation rates in the world, and has very few perennial rivers.

The organization said the Government would need N$2.67 billion for the Epupa development, N$1.15 billion for the Okavango pipeline, and N$322 million to build a water desalination plant in Walvis Bay and at the Khan dam in the Swakop River. This would total N$4.232 billion.

On the other hand, Earthlife’s "integrated" development consisted of a 12–inch gas pipeline from Oranjemund to Walvis Bay for N$1.15 billion, a 250–MW gas power station plus desalination plant for N$966 million and a water pipeline between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, which the organization says should cost N$1.15 billion. This totals N$3.266 billion, which could save the country N$966 million.

The group also reiterated its stance that the planned 750–MW Kudu gas power now being studied would make the Epupa project superfluous, as it would provide abundant and cheaper power with fewer environmental impacts. Kudu is expected to cost N$2.2 billion to make Namibia self–sufficient in power during the foreseeable future and have enough for some export of electricity.

Earthlife Namibia’s suggestions comes just after the Epupa feasibility study was completed and given to the Namibian government to review. The study will be made available on the internet after October 13 ( The feasibility study will be the subject of public meetings in Namibian in October and November (see Headlines). While the feasibility study is required to evaluate alternative sources of energy, it does so only in the broadest sense; its guiding premise is to review just large–scale dam options. "The objective of the feasibility study is to provide Namibia and Angola with relevant information in order to reach a decision concerning a future development of the hydropower potential of the lower Cunene River," according to an October 1996 letter by Arild Eik, then–acting director of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), the lead donor agency funding the dam’s feasibility study.