A view from the air of the Luangwa River in the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. Photo by James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US
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The Zambian Ministry of Energy has just canceled the feasibility study for the Ndevu Gorge Dam on the Luangwa River in Zambia. It would have generated 235MG of electric power. The Luangwa River is the last free-flowing river (in other words without a dam on it) in Southern Africa. It is 470 miles (755 kilometers) long. The dam would have been 256 feet (78 meters) high and produced a 10 miles (16 kilometers) reservoir. It would have inundated 583 square miles (1510 square kilometers), submerging six safari camps in the South Luangwa National Park and land in six chiefdoms (the local government administrative units in Zambia) adjacent to the river.
Elephants in the Luangwa river, Zambia. Photo by James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US
The World Wildlife Fund–Zambia (WWF) spearheaded the opposition to the dam. Over 197,000 of its members signed a petition in opposition to the dam. Likewise twenty-five chiefs (local government officials) including those who would be affected by the dam opposed the project.
Nachilala Nkombo, WWF–Zambia country director, applauded the cancelation of the feasibility study. In WWF’s press release she wrote, “Keeping the Luangwa River free flowing is the best decision for both people and nature, and WWF commends the government for halting the dam and instead seeking lower impact, renewable alternatives to power Zambia’s development. WWF is ready to support the government to develop a system-wide energy plan that meets Zambia’s climate and energy goals without damming our remaining free-flowing rivers.” (Note: I knew Nachilala Nkombo when she worked for the American Friends Service Committee in Africa and I was on the AFSC’s Africa Panel.)
Its estimated cost was $1.2 billion. This cost is extremely high at $5100 per megawatt while the Inga III dam on the Congo River would be built at the estimated cost of $2920 per megawatt. The cost of these megaprojects normally ends up being almost twice as expensive as originally estimated. Moreover Zambia, which now generates sufficient electricity for its 2800 MW needed capacity, has plans to produce 600 MW of solar electricity for the same estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The dam is therefore 2.5 times more expensive than the solar equivalent. In my opinion the cancelation seems to be a no-brainer.
The lesson from this story is obvious to those who want to learn it. Large hydropower dams are now as uneconomical as coal and nuclear power plants. When the environmental destruction, the cost overruns, the long periods needed to complete the dams, and the large amount of upfront capital costs are considered, there is no need to build large dams. Many decentralized small scale solar and/or wind projects with storage are the wave of the future.
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