Voices from the Zambezi: River Communities Speak Out

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First published on

from World Rivers Review

“The Zambezi River is the source of life for our families… [it] is generous and other users along with us benefit from it. We respect all of them as good neighbors, and we especially recognize the important role of Cahora Bassa dam… However, in the 30 years since the dam’s construction, we have lost productive lands along the river and on the islands. The reeds we use have disappeared. Fish in the river have also decreased. In the delta, the River arms are progressively drying up. The mangroves are threatened, and so too is the prawn fishery…”

These are some of the conclusions that a group of 70 subsistence farmers, fishermen and NGO members from the Lower Zambezi River in Mozambique developed in a declaration they presented to government authorities in October 2004. Representatives from the four provinces crossed by the Lower Zambezi came together in the city of Tete, 120 kilometers downstream of Cahora Bassa Dam (the fourth largest dam in Africa) for a three-day workshop. This was the first meeting designed to analyze the river situation from the perspective of subsistence users in Mozambique. Government representatives from the Zambezi Water Management Authority and the Zambezi Development Authority also attended the workshop, which was facilitated by Justiça Ambiental (JA!), a Mozambican environmental justice NGO.

The meeting was the culmination of a one-and-a-half-year capacity-building process, supported by the Siemenpuu Foundation, in which JA! worked with local communities and NGOs along the Zambezi River. The process was designed to raise awareness about dams in the Zambezi in view of the proposed Mphanda Nkuwa hydroelectric project and about problems with current river management. The Mozambican government plans to build the 1,348-MW Mphanda Nkuwa Dam 80 km downstream of Cahora Bassa. The underlying aim of the meeting was to convey the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) to communities along the Zambezi, to support their implementation from the “bottom-up.”

As the workshop’s declaration affirmed, the Zambezi is in dire need of better integrated management, with greater consideration of social and environmental uses of the river. Since the construction of Cahora Bassa by colonial Portugal in the early 1970s, the poverty and vulnerability of subsistence populations in the Lower Zambezi Valley has worsened. Several scientists have documented major impacts on the downstream environment caused by reduced variability in river flows and the dramatic decline in the rainy-season flood flows. The impacts on the river and its delta (which is a Ramsar site, and one of the richest wetlands in Africa) have been extensive, creating enormous social problems for the local populations whose survival depends on the availability of natural resources and productive riverbank land. Approximately 800,000 people have been affected by the dam, but their concerns have never been taken into account in any decision concerning the river, which is the basis of their livelihoods. Sadly, history may repeat itself with the proposed project of Mphanda Nkuwa.

The consultation process for Mphanda Nkuwa’s EIA only included the people who live in the future reservoir area, those in the provincial capitals and the capital Maputo. Rural downstream people received no information on the proposed scheme, despite the fact that if the dam goes ahead, its operation will preclude flood-recession agriculture and fishing for at least 100,000 people. Of those affected, the promoters have only considered compensation measures for the 1,400 who will be resettled for the reservoir. Ironically, UTIP, the dam promoters, claim internationally that the project is following WCD recommendations. Lamentably, both UTIP and Cahora Bassa management declined to participate in the October workshop.

Empowering River-Users
JA’s efforts to address these imbalances include sharing information about Mphanda Nkuwa’s impacts with those who could be affected by them, promoting participation and integrated water resources management, and sharing information about the WCD. Over an 18-month period, JA! worked with 25 villages along the river valley, and trained more than 350 people in river management issues. Throughout the process, people raised the problems of current river management, such as the long-term losses in subsistence agriculture and fishing; the drying of the delta and the decline in prawn catches at the river’s mouth. Local farmers were especially troubled by the fact they lose part of their agricultural production every time Cahora Bassa opens its sluice gates – a frequent but unpredictable (to them) event. During the training, communities requested the implementation of effective warning systems for dam releases, and a return to more natural flow patterns from Cahora Bassa.

Community members trained in river management issues were outspoken during the final workshop in Tete. Despite the recent history of fear and repression in Mozambique, many participants boldly described their problems before government officials, speaking about the impacts they have been suffering since Cahora Bassa was built and complaining about the lack of warning when the dam opens its sluice gates. They also appealed to authorities for an urgent change in dam management. Regarding Mphanda Nkuwa, some raised doubts that it will help their communities, and said they believe the benefits will be exported or go only to an elite few. All agreed to request that UTIP undertake comprehensive studies to determine the impacts on their livelihoods, and to be properly consulted according to WCD recommendations.

Government officials who participated in the workshop unfortunately interpreted the meeting to be a direct attack on Cahora Bassa, Mphanda Nkuwa and consequently on the current paradigm regarding Mozambique’s development – i.e., mega projects that, in theory, have “trickle down effects” to the nation’s poor. They also minimized the significance of the dam’s impacts, by conveying that the production of small farmers is not economically valuable and is therefore not worth protecting.

In the 30 years of Cahora Bassa´s existence, trickle down effects have remained unknown to the rural populations who live along the Zambezi. What they do know is that their resources are fewer and their quality of life, already precarious, has worsened. As one of the trainees stated,”People do whatever they want to the rural farmers, because we don’t know anything … But with this training we have learned what the law says, now we have to speak up to those in government to respect our rights.”

And speak they did! In the aftermath of the workshop, they have vowed that they will not sit back waiting passively for action. Members from different communities in the Zambezi Valley are forming an association to represent their interests and engage with government, and push for a change in the management of the river. They will provide input into a new river basin committee that the Water Authority has committed to form, in part thanks to public pressure, and to have their voices heard in the Mphanda Nkuwa process. These basic steps will ensure that the voices from the Zambezi will become louder and better heard, for the benefit of all its users and the environment.