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Water project row looms

Gift Phiri

LONG-STANDING plans by government to draw water from the Zambezi River to supply drought-prone Matabeleland region risk igniting “hydro-politics” that could end up degenerating into a serious conf

lict in the sub-region.

Diplomats, international lawyers and hydrologists said government could not draw water from the 3 000-kilometre river to Bulawayo without the approval of eight Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries whose territories lie in the Zambezi basin.

“There is combustible hydro-politics surrounding that river,” one diplomat said.

The Zambezi River, Africa’s fourth longest river after the Nile, Congo and Niger, drains off eight of the 13-member Sadc states – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

International legal experts and diplomats said the question of negotiating with other states was very pertinent, adding that if Zimbabwe failed to handle the issue with caution it could lead to a serious conflict in the region.

The Zambezi River has been utilised for hydro-electric power (HEP) generation at Kariba, Cahorra Bassa and the north bank of the Victoria Falls.

A number of riparian states – countries from which the Zambezi River drains – are understood to be working out plans to exploit the large river’s hydro-electric potential.

Zambia is understood to be planning to develop a 450 megawatt (MW) HEP station at Lower Kafue, 1 600 MW station at the Batoka Gorge and a 1 240 MW station at the Devil’s Gorge at Victoria Falls. The country is also understood to be working out plans to develop a 1 000 MW station at Mupata Gorge.

Mozambique is planning to exploit the hydro-electric potential of the river by building a 1 200 MW station at Cahorra Bassa, 1 600 MW station at Mupanda Uncua, 444 MW station at Boroma and another 654 MW station at Lupata.

Sources said that plans by Zimbabwe to draw water from the river would badly affect the downward flow trends of the Zambezi River – a potential source of conflict with other states with plans to set up HEP stations downstream.

Prominent hydrologist Sir Mott McDonald, speaking on the sidelines of the just-ended Harare Agricultural Show, said already the average inflow of water into the river had been drastically reduced.

“Competition for the increasingly limited resource whose supply continues to diminish and is uncertain should serve as a wake up call for states such as Zimbabwe to pursue its national interest cognisant that there are other competitors,” warned McDonald. “There is great potential for conflict in the proposed Matabeleland Zambezi Water project.”

Namibia is reportedly planning to expand the Lonrho operated sugar irrigation project in eastern Caprivi from the current 40 ha to 140 ha. The country is reportedly working out plans to channel Zambezi water from Katima Mlilo to Lake Liambezi to irrigate several thousand hectares of cane.

Botswana is also envisaging draining from the Zambezi to meet expected demand for water in eastern Botswana and the greater Gaborone region. Botswana has already expressed interest in joining either Zimbabwe or South Africa in drawing water from the Zambezi.

Zambia is also understood to be making plans to extract water from the river to feed the planned Kafue-Kariba and the Mambova irrigation project. South Africa, although not a riparian state, plans to draw from the Zambezi between 2,5 to 4 billion cubic metres annually when the Lesotho Highland Water Project is fully developed.

“This raises questions of whether or not there is enough water in the Zambezi after all for the simultaneous satisfaction of non-consumptive use (HEP) and expected consumptive use,” a Sadc envoy said.

The diplomat said there were serious ramifications over plans by Zimbabwe to unilaterally draw water from the river. The envoy said there is a regional protocol on shared watercourse systems produced by Sadc, but not all riparian states had signed it.

“This means that Zimbabwe cannot extract water from the river without negotiations with all riparian states and this may take a very, very long time,” the diplomat said.

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