Why you should care
One of Africa’s fastest-growing economies is grappling with a sharpening divide between electricity and forests.
The stalking lioness leaps into a herd of lazily roaming wildebeests, using her strong front paws to grab her prey by the neck, suffocate it and kill it, all within seconds. Vultures circle above. Hyenas stare. But at Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, where such breathtaking sights are routine, it’s not just the wildebeests whose survival is at risk. A massive hydropower plant is threatening giant chunks of the prized animal reserve as Tanzania prepares for its toughest development-versus-nature test yet.
One of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, with a population of 53 million, Tanzania has repeatedly suffered from crippling electricity crises. In response, the country’s government under President John Magufuli plans to start building a grand hydropower dam at Stiegler’s Gorge on the Rufiji River this summer. Touted as a “silver bullet” solution to the country’s power woes, the dam is expected to inject 2,100 megawatts into the national grid — more than enough to meet Tanzania’s current electricity needs.
But the dam is proposed within Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than Switzerland at 5 million hectares. The Tanzanian state agency tasked with managing the country’s forests conceded in May that it would clear 148,000 hectares of forests in the sprawling Rufiji valley to make way for the reservoir. The government insists the project, estimated to cost $2 billion, must go on as planned — and that Tanzania’s economic future hinges on it. But conservationists, both domestic and international, are worried the project could irreparably damage the park, and may even lead to UNESCO reconsidering the World Heritage status the reserve earned in 1982. Amani Ngusaru, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) country director for Tanzania, says about 200,000 people who depend on fishing for their protein and livelihood would be affected.
This is against the law.
Nape Nnauye, ruling party legislator who is against the project
And local communities and politicians — even from Magufuli’s own party — are accusing the government of ignoring the impact of lost revenue from tourism and other nature-dependent economic activities on local communities downstream. The dam’s construction, say critics, will increase soil erosion, hurting farmers and fishermen.
“A lot of natural forests will be destroyed … this is against the law,” says Nape Nnauye, a legislator from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party.
The challenge isn’t unique to Tanzania. Local communities and environmental groups are waging battles from Brazil and Bangladesh to China and Cameroon against dam projects that threaten heritage sites. In some cases, the impacts of dams truly show up only decades later. A 2015 study by the University of East Anglia revealed that Brazil’s Balbina Dam, built in the 1980s, has turned what was a vast swath of rainforest into an archipelago of 3,546 islands. But Tanzania’s nature-versus-nurture tussle is rare in scale. Selous is the largest game reserve in Africa.
Magufuli and the government have made clear they’re not buckling under the opposition — not yet, anyway. Speaking about the proposed project last year, Tanzania’s president — who came to power amid hopes for liberalism but has in recent months demonstrated a more authoritarian streak — insisted the hydropower reservoir would “help Tanzania develop”: “We are not going to listen to people who speak about impacts on [the] environment without facts on the ground,” he said. Medard Kalemani, Tanzania’s minister for energy, tells this writer that $306.7 million has already been budgeted to launch work on the project.
But the “facts on the ground” do suggest a threat to the ecology of the Selous park, the wildlife conservation group WWF said in 2017, adding that the project could potentially deprive farmers and fishermen of their livelihoods. “WWF is opposed to a dam at Stiegler’s Gorge in Selous Game Reserve unless a strategic environmental assessment is implemented, as stipulated by the existing Tanzanian environmental law, which shows no damage to the reserve,” says Ngusaru.
To date, the government hasn’t conducted any such assessment. And ignoring those concerns may be as dangerous for Tanzania’s future as not building a steady source of electrical power. As climate change continues to take its toll, experts say the eastern and southern parts of Tanzania are expected to experience extreme weather and recurring drought spells, which would likely affect the capacities of hydropower dams. And while hydroelectric power is widely hailed as clean and sustainable, it often comes with an environmental price and economic consequences for local communities as rivers are rerouted, biodiversity is lost and human-animal conflicts increase, say analysts.
The proposed reservoir may bring both gains and losses, suggests Raphael Mwalyosi, professor of ecology at the University of Dar es Salaam. It will produce “high value” energy, and could lead to a “drastic reduction in the frequency of severe floods in the lower Rufiji valley,” he says. But while direct ecological effects of the dam’s construction are unlikely to endanger wildlife, animals like zebras, giraffes and wildebeests could potentially be at risk, he adds. River impoundment could adversely affect floodplain fisheries and agriculture due to changes in the water flow and salinity levels.
While there’s little opposition to the idea of clean energy in Tanzania, controversial energy projects often attract opposition from local communities, as residents fear being evicted from their land or prohibited from using natural resources. And at times, the government has backtracked — a record that is igniting hope among those opposed to the Stiegler’s Gorge project. In 2016, Tanzanian authorities halted a $569 million bio-electricity project in the eastern Bagamoyo district, citing concerns for wildlife and over the violation of land rights.
When government officials last year prevented farmers and fishermen from working on the banks of the Rufiji in preparation for the power project, the move elicited angry reactions that have only intensified since then. “We have been fishing in this river all our life; how come they prevent us from fishing?” asks Huruma Kalegaya, a fishmonger at Mloka village outside Selous park. “Who is destroying environment between us and them?”
Local communities in the Rufiji valley fear displacement and loss of access to water they’ve long used for drinking, fishing and farming. At Mtunda ward in Rufiji district, 66-year-old paddy farmer Sultani Maulid worries that if fresh water from the river is diverted to the electricity plant, he won’t have enough to dilute the seawater that seeps into his rice fields. His livelihood could vanish.
For Tanzania, the stakes are even higher. On the one hand is its future economic growth, and the electricity its industry will need. On the other is the thrill of watching exotic beasts surrounded by nature that has drawn millions of tourists and helped get the country’s economy to where it is now. Choosing the prey to sacrifice isn’t always easy.