The Namibian government, with Angolan consent, is in the process of choosing a site on the Kunene River, the border between Namibia and Angola, to build a new hydroelectric dam. The Namibian government is enamored with the Epupa Falls for the location of their new dam, and consequently the proposed dam is now the center of immense controversy. At the heart of the debate lies the fate of the Himba people, the traditional inhabitants of the Epupa Falls and the border region which surrounds the Falls.

The Himba are a semi-nomadic pastoral society. Cattle are the basis for the entire Himba culture since they provide the Himba's primary sustenance, materials for tools, social status, and are an integral part of the Himba religious and cultural ceremonies. The reservoir that would inundate Himba lands would destroy their nomadic way of life by preventing their traditional movement and the grazing of their cattle. Three thousand Himba would be directly effected by relocation, and another 30,000 Himba would be affected by exposure to diseases like malaria and hepatitis that would breed in the stagnant water of the reservoir, and the encroachment of towns that would spring up around the dam -- a significant change since there are no towns and only dirt tracks running through Himba lands currently.

The destruction of Himba culture is not the only potential danger: a tremendous ecological loss would occur. The Kunene River system is an integral part of migratory routes. The dam would cause a reduction in the dispersal of nutrient-rich sediments while also causing a change in the size and times of floods, thus changing the flood plain. There would be an increase in eutrophication and seasonal temperature anomalies. Changes in the discharge of river water into the Atlantic Ocean would also effect Namibia's rich offshore fisheries. Another major concern is that the reservoir would evaporate 900 million cubic meters of water per year. Since Namibia already loses 83 percent of its rainfall each year to evaporation and the country only uses 250 million cubic meters a year, the question is why would the government allow that much more water to evaporate while promoting increased development.

With the existence of so many social and environmental questions, one might ask if there are alternatives to the Epupa Dam proposal. The answer is there are few options which would seem to better suite the interests of Namibia. The most appealing for Namibia is the development of the Kudu gas field of the coast of Namibia. Unlike the Kunene River, the Kudu field is the sole possession of Namibia. A natural-gas-fired power plant would produce twice as much electricity (750 MW) as the hydroelectric dam (320 MW). The gas power plant proposal would also include a proposed water desalination plant and the combined cost of the gas pipeline, power plant, and desalination plant would cost 24 percent less (US $460 million) than the proposed Epupa Dam (US $600 million). The Namibian government feels that a water desalination plant is necessary, raising further questions as to why they would want dam the Kunene for hydroelectric purposes. The Kudu power plant would produce electricity at a 40 percent lower cost than the electricity from the Epupa dam. The one drawback is the gas power plant has a projected life span of 30 years while the dam has a projected life span of 40 years.

Despite this drawback of the gas power plant, there remains one other fundamental economic issue. Currently, all of Namibia's electricity demands are met without any problems. South Africa exports and provides Namibia with all its electricity and will continue to do so until 2010. In 2010, South Africa will most likely have to begin importing electricity. Namibia plans to be the primary exporter of electricity to South Africa, but until that time, the Epupa Dam project has a large potential for becoming a financial disaster since there is no current demand for its electricity. US $600 million was 24 percent of the Namibian GDP in 1996, and to allocate that percentage of money to one project is a major financial risk for anyone. The success of the Epupa Dam is contingent on an enormous amount of variables, and as economist Steve Rivkin demonstrated in his economic analysis of the dam proposal, the failure of several variables would cause the financial failure of the dam.

The question then becomes why is the Namibian government so determined to build the dam in light of so many potential problems and with existence of other and better alternatives? The government apparently feels that it is necessary to be energy self-sufficient, and there are rumored reports that the government would like "a prestige project." The Himba will suffer greatly if the dam is built, but this means little to government officials. The Trade and Industry Minister Hidipo Hamutenya told the BBC that "They (the Himba) need hospitals. They need to cope with the vagaries of nature -- the heat and the cold -- by putting on what everyone else has -- ties and suits, rather than being half naked and half dressed." The Himba have made their intentions well known, stating that they do not want the dam specifically because it will destroy their culture. Of 32 Himba chiefs, 26 have signed a joint agreement expressing their desire that the dam not be built. Chief Kapika said "There will be no dam here...We do not want it. This is our land. You have already consulted us [on the prefeasibility study], and we have told you that we do not want this dam. It will destroy our land and our cattle...We will all gather there and they will have to build the dam on top of us."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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