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Managing the Rain from Heaven: Dams and Downstream Residents in Southern Zambia

This encounter took place between a surveying party and indigenous people living alongside the Kafue Flats, the inland floodplain of the Kafue River in southern Zambia. The 1963 survey (see Howard and Williams, 1982) evaluated the region's potential for hydroelectric power development and irrigated farming. Ultimately the Zambian government built two hydrodams in the 1970s. The proclaimed goal was to promote economic growth, but the residents downstream from the main dam at Itezhitezhi were rightly concerned about possible threats to their economy.

Conflicts of interest are all too common between river basin residents and governments promoting hydroelectric power development. Environmental change and integration into the national economy often result in loss of local control over natural resources. Much attention rightly focuses on the negative impact of dambuilding on upstream users, notably those forced to resettle when reservoirs flood their lands. But as Michael Horowitz observes, the effects on downstream residents, though less immediate, can be just as harmful in the long term.

Thayer Scudder and Elizabeth Colson's influential analysis of the problems of dislocated people proposes a four-stage conceptual model: Planning and Recruitment; Adjustment and Coping; Economic Development and Community Formation; and Incorporation and Handing Over. This model deals well with disruption experienced by upstream users in the Adjustment and Coping phase, fairly early in the process of dislocation.

The case of Zambia's Kafue Flats shows that it is possible to develop a modified approach applicable to downstream residents. The initial impact of reservoir impoundment on downstream users of water may be minor; they are forced out or flooded out less often. But subsequent ecological changes reveal the unforeseen effects of environmental engineering and the challenges of managing the rain from Heaven.

The Environment and People of the Kafue Flats

Alevel, treeless plain during the dry season, the Kafue Flats traditionally became a vast temporary lake (over 3000 square miles at peak extent) with the rains which typically fell from about November to April. Significantly, most of "the rain from Heaven" does not fall directly onto the plain; the greater part comes from higher-rainfall areas in the upper Kafue in northern Zambia, slowly spreading out after passing through the range of low hills at Itezhitezhi.

As the floodwaters receded, nutritious grasses grew, making the dry-season Flats a superb natural pasture, and its lagoons and riverbanks were good sites for flood recession cultivation. The region is hardly a paradise, though, since direct rainfall is variable and unreliable. Drought created famine conditions all too often in the past, and high-flood years crowded people and their herds between the water and tsetse fly-infested bush on the northern, western and southern margins of the plain. But with economic activities timed to the rhythm of the seasons, in most years seasonal transhumance offered a viable livelihood.

The largest number of people living in or along the western Kafue Flats are Ila agropastoralists. There are also small subsistence fishing communities in the central Flats area, inhabited by people known as Gbatwa, and several thousand commercial fishermen (mostly from other parts of Zambia or Malawi) in riverbank fishing camps. But the majority of people using the plain and its margins for their livelihood belong to long-established sedentary villages. This discussion focuses on the Ila, most of whom live in Namwala District.

The Ila are closely related in language and culture to their more numerous Tonga neighbors in Southern Province. Administrative and missionary intervention during British colonial rule heightened differentiation between the two groups. The early history of communities identifying themselves as Ila remains obscure, not least because there are no written accounts before 1886. But oral evidence collected during fieldwork suggests that the origins of Ila communities well predate the arrival of Europeans.

The emergence of these communities is related to their adaptation to the floodplain environment. Hunters migrated with their families, perhaps several hundred years ago, and settled on the margins of the Flats. The acquisition of cattle marked a key feature of the local economy in later years. Just when cattlekeeping developed is uncertain, but the first migrants did not arrive with cattle.

While these people cultivated some indigenous crops, the arrival of New World foods (cassava, peanuts and especially maize), most likely in the eighteenth century, strengthened the local food economy. By the time the British established control around 1900, the Ila enjoyed a diverse subsistence base (in good years) with farming, pastoralism, fishing and hunting, both along the Flats and in the area to the west which became Kafue national Park in 1951.

Colonialism brought some land alienation for government posts, missions and two European farms. More important changes came with the advent of taxation and a money economy, both requiring access to cash and spurring cattle sales and some labor migration. The colonial impact thus varied, with mostly incremental changes affecting the Ila before World War II.

The postwar "second colonial occupation," a period of greatly increased investment and rural intervention in British Africa, arguably brought more benefit than harm to the Ila. Tsetse control schemes, better veterinary care, transportation improvements and some commercial farming both raised standards of living and bolstered local cultural values. But the late colonial and post-1964 independence period sowed the seeds of future problems, because Zambian development planners seized the opportunity for hydroelectric dam construction in the lower Kafue basin.

The Coming of the Dams

The government of Northern Rhodesia (colonial Zambia) first conducted hydrological surveys of the Kafue in the early 1950s. Initially Itezhitezhi was the preferred site to generate electricity for the territory's copper mines, but after 1953 the new Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland chose the Zambezi River, partly for prestige and political reasons.

The Kariba Dam built in 1955-58 created the world's largest man-made lake to that time, generating more power but also costing far more to build. The sufferings of the Gwembe Tonga displaced by Kariba provided a classic instance of the hardships experienced by upstream dwellers dislocated by dams. Kafue Flats residents who confronted the surveyors in 1963 clearly dreaded "a second Kariba."

After 1965 Zambia could no longer rely on Kariba's power due to the white-minority regime in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and it revived the Kafue plans. Zambia built Kafue Gorge Dam and Power Station in 1968-70 and Itezhitezhi Dam, an earth-and-rockfill structure, in 1974-76 with Dutch and Italian aid. Negative impacts at first appeared slight. Kafue Gorge was virtually uninhabited, and Itezhitezhi displaced a minimal number of people living on the banks above the dam because the lake lay mostly in Kafue National Park. But a regulated river was another matter for downstream residents.

Shortly after the reservoir filled in August 1977, a drawdown from Itezhitezhi released a huge flood of water onto the Flats where Ila cattle customarily grazed. Because of inadequate warnings a large number of animals drowned, possibly more than 1000. Though compensation was promised to herdowners and future notifications were more timely, Namwala's people became acutely aware of the potential threat that dam operations posed.

Other changes occurred with the passage of time. Some prime fishing sites disappeared due to reduced river levels or permanent inundation. Smaller floods of shorter duration meant that dry-season gardens beside streams, lagoons and oxbow lakes became less productive, and bush encroachment onto the plain has begun. The formerly abundant birds and wildlife of the Flats gradually became more scarce, contributing to a decline in protein in local diets and reduced food security. Ila cattleowners noticed a decline in the quality and extent of grazing once Itezhitezhi began operating. But a major economic crisis developed only in the early 1990s in combination with political and climatic transformations in Zambia and Southern Africa.

Liberalization, Cattle Disease and a Role for NGOs in the 1990s

In 1991, after 27 years in power, the United National Independence Party of Kenneth Kaunda was soundly defeated by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy. Under President Frederick Chiluba, Zambia's new government adopted a policy of economic liberalization to stimulate economic activity. The government privatized many of its assets and reduced the budgets of numerous programs. Free or subsidized veterinary services to prevent cattle diseases were no longer provided. Cattleowners had to buy chemicals and medicines formerly supplied by the Veterinary Department, or pay fees to the Department.

This cutback in rural extension services coincided with two major negative events. First, the 1991-92 rainy season effectively never arrived due to one of the worst droughts of the century in Southern Africa. Second, there was an outbreak of corridor disease, a tick-bone malady fatal to cattle. This conjuncture meant that veterinary services were unavailable to cash-starved farmers just when the drought reduced pasture and water for herds, making them more vulnerable to the ravages of disease.

While corridor disease struck cattle herds all over the country, the greatest harm came in districts like Namwala where cattle are a major economic asset. In the words of one Ila informant, once the proud owner of a herd of over 100 fine animals, "Ah, you should have seen me with my cattle. Then I was a man! But this corridor disease has hurt us where we feel it most." It had a catastrophic effect on Namwala herds, reducing their numbers by one third from 220-225,000 to about 150,000 -- for many, a personal as well as economic disaster.

The epizoootic (a disease outbreak affecting many animals of one kind at the same time) eventually subsided, but the disease remained a potential threat, and forced herdowners to try alternative strategies. Some acquired donkeys as a substitute source of animal traction. Others searched for new supplies of veterinary medicines to protect their cattle. Into this void stepped Harvest Help UK, a small but energetic non-governmental organization specializing in rural development. Harvest Help contacted District Veterinary Officers throughout Zambia, offering to sponsor projects with start-up funding to purchase chemical sprays to protect cattle against disease-bearing insects.

The only initial positive response came from Namwala's DVO, Dr. Almond Sitima. Under his auspices Harvest Help's Namwala Cattle Project commenced in mid-1994. It set up a rotating fund for chemical spraying, which would eventually be replaced by funds from participants. Sitima hired Ellie Mweetma as project field officer, organizing and supervising local chapters, or Cattle Clubs. Mweetma, an able and hardworking woman born near Itezhitezhi, became a familiar sight riding her red Honda motorbike to Club meetings all over the district.

The project sponsored fifteen Cattle Clubs by early 1995, and looked forward to further growth. In 1996, Harvest Help and Voluntary Service Overseas (Britain's equivalent of the Peace Corps) arranged for an expatriate veterinary specialist to live in Namwala and advise the Cattle Project. This support for the local cattle industry was generally well received, not least because it harmonized with residents' concern for their beloved animals.

Dams, Downstream Residents and NGOS : Lessons for the future

The stereotyped view of the (male) Ila sees them as proud, conservative, cattlekeeping warriors. (The female image is rather different, but many women own animals too). The Ila are "people of cattle," though they derive much of their food and income from other sources. Their "conservative" commitment is to preserving an environment that sustains their agropastoral economy. They are not anti-development, as dam surveyors learned when residents "stressed that the design should be such as to provide more pasture throughout the year...if the scheme should reduce the flood plain there must be provision for irrigation in the flats either by channels or by direct flooding."

Observers often criticize the Ila for uneconomic use of their cattle, because they do not routinely eat beef or sell all their surplus animals to commercial buyers. This narrow concern with market sales does not do justice to the diverse ways that Ila deploy their cattle, which help mobilize labor and build support networks needed in times of dearth. This is economically rational behavior designed to provide security rather than just maximize profits.

All this depends on continued access to the water and pasture that cattle need. But dam construction and river regulation have removed control over natural resources from the region. With less abundant water, the local economy is more vulnerable to changes in both weather and political economy. The corridor disease episode indicates that new conditions will require new adaptations.

Ila herdowners tend to blame their recent problems on Itezhitezhi Dam. In fact, the ecological changes affecting their livelihood have varied causes. The dam reduces seasonal flooding, but so does the less reliable rainfall of the last twenty years. Drought and reduction of veterinary services aggravated the effects of corridor disease when it arrived. The decline in wildlife also reflects the effectiveness of game fences constructed as part of tsetse poaching. Human agency is blamed where it is visible, and government is a tempting target for criticism.

Aid from Harvest Help is a timely response to this situation, but it has clear limitations. It needed an astute DVO to grasp the opportunity, and having only a few hundred Cattle Club members among many thousands of herdowners restricts its scope. Better-informed, progressive, farmers make the best recruits for the project even though poorer residents have greater need of assistance, and few women have joined. The real test comes when Harvest Help's women have joined, and when Harvest Help's start-up funds are exhausted -- can Club members sustain the project on their own? Project administrators in Lusaka and Namwala have worried about this transition from donor to local financing.

Nevertheless, The Namwala Cattle Project is a welcome intervention. Unlike ambitious broader projects to transform local economies and end poverty, its goal of protecting cattle from disease is modest and achievable. As a technical response to a specific problem, the project cannot address all the needs of Namwala's people living downstream from Itezhitezhi, but it does consider the local ecology and culture.

Because Zambia must have power from Itezhizhi, the rain from Heaven will not be fully restored. But the impacts can be better managed with cooperation between government, NGOs and local people.


Funding for research came from a Fulbright lie Scholarship. Thanks to Jessica Chapel, William Fisher, Wesley Hazemba, Anthony Hovey, Ellie Mweetwa, Parker Shipton and Almond Sitima for advice, assistance, and support. The author is solely responsible for any factual or interpretive errors.


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Thomas Pyke Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University and adjunct faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He conducted research in Namwala in 1992 and 1994-5 on "The Western Kafue Flats: Technology, Environment and History in Zambia, c. 1930-1992."

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