Victoria Falls

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Changing nature

Changing nature

The Batoka Gorge below the Victoria Falls
The Batoka Gorge below the Victoria Falls
Peter Roberts

We last covered the proposed Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Scheme in our March issue. Peter Roberts updates us on the developments.

It was confirmed in August that Zimbabwe had paid Zambia US$40million of its debt relating to the construction of the Kariba Dam. The payment, made by the state-owned power utility company ZESA, represents over 50% of the total outstanding amount, with the remainder due to be settled by March 2014.

The debt, dating from the 1960s and the breakup of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (modern day Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), was a stumbling block to the development of the Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Scheme (HES) in the 1990s.

Earlier in the year it was reported that the Zambezi River Authority, the joint body representing the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe, responsible for the management and operation of Kariba Dam, had shortlisted six international companies for the construction of the Batoka Dam and had commissioned an updated environmental impact survey. In June the Batoka Gorge HES was given priority status by the African Development Bank, allowing it to tap into development funds set up to finance key regional infrastructure projects.

The power generated from the 1,600 megawatt Batoka Gorge HES will be shared between the two countries and alleviate a growing regional energy deficit. The project, estimated to cost about US$3billion, is expected to be built and operated by a private company for a period of years before transferring ownership to the two states.

Whilst the positive benefits of the project in terms of generating much needed electricity is not in doubt, there is much uncertainty over the possible negative impacts on the environment and on the tourism industry. The dam site, approximately 50km downstream of the Victoria Falls, will create a lake that will flood the gorges back upstream, reaching within a close distance of the outlet for the existing Victoria Falls Hydroelectric Station, at the junction of the second and third gorges.

This section of the river is widely known as the wildest commercial white water rafting in the world. As the rapids of the Zambezi are drowned under the still waters of the new lake it will mean an end to the white-water rafting which has for the last few decades been a major tourism draw for both sides of the river.

It is uncertain how the project will impact on wildlife in the gorge, which is listed as part of the wider Victoria Falls World Heritage Site. The gorge has been identified internationally as an Important Bird Area on the basis of the many rare breeding birds which use the gorge as a refuge, such as the taita falcon, Verreaux’s (black) eagle and black stork, and which are often sensitive to disturbance.

It is more than likely that the wider environmental impacts of a project like this will only become known after its construction. Scientists are still learning ecological lessons from Kariba, half a century after its construction.

However the project will also create new opportunities which may benefit tourism and wildlife. The lake will provide a new playground for leisure activities, much like the larger Lake Kariba, and will undoubtedly also create new opportunities for wildlife which will have access to perennial water along side gorges and gullies of the lake.

Whilst the full impact of this development project still remains to be seen, one thing is for certain – the nature of the Zambezi and the Batoka Gorge will be significantly changed as we seek to harness the river’s power. Another dam is proposed for the Devil’s Gorge between the Batoka and Kariba dams.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Victoria Falls

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

Read more on the Batoka Gorge Dam in the Zambezi Traveller:
Batoka Gorge Dam: to be or not to be? (March 2013)
Batoka gorge dam one step closer (July 2012)
Batoka Gorge Power Scheme Revisited (March 2012)