Monks Mound in Cahokia, Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Photo: By Heironymous Rowe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

When I was a child, my parents would take us on a day’s outing from St. Louis across the Mississippi River to have a picnic at Cahokia State Park. There the native Indians had build large earth pyramids. The biggest was called Monks Mount. We would climb to the top where we could see the St. Louis skyscrapers. Why would any society go to the tremendous effort to carry all this dirt for this ten story high mound and the many other smaller ones nearby? This is what I call “the pyramid complex.” This is the desire of those in power to build giant monuments that will last long after their death. In the old Egyptian and Central American days, rulers build the great pyramids thousands of years ago, even as tourists still marvel at them today.

In modern times rulers have had to give some value to their big monuments so they have to have some utilitarian purpose. The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River is a good example. Joseph Stalin, when he ruled the Soviet Union, was noted for these monstrous types of projects.

Giraffes and gnu at Selous Game Reserve. There are two white giraffes in Kenya. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

On July 25, the president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, laid the cornerstone for the 2,115 MW dam in Stiegler’s Gorge on the Rufigi River in Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO Heritage Site. When finished this will be the 4th largest dam in Africa and the 9th largest in the world. A true monument.

Size of Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Selous Game Reserve is a gigantic 19,000 square miles (50,000 sq km) park. This is about twice the size of the state of Maryland. Like Tsavo Park in Kenya, it is mostly bush and is unsuitable for cultivation. Moreover it is infected with tsetse fly which gives sleeping sickness to both people and cattle. Until many of the elephants were killed off by poachers, it had the largest number of elephants in the world, over 100,000. There are now only 13,000 or so left. It is difficult to get there so most tourists fly in by small airplane. A night of hunting there can cost up to $3000.

The dam is supposed to take three years to build and cost $3.6 billion. People are skeptical of this timeline as such a large project will probably take more like twelve to fifteen years. The cost are also underestimated as it is more likely that, when the financing and other costs are included, it may cost closer to $7.58 billion. Cost overruns are also likely so that it may increase to $9.85 billion. Two Egyptian companies have won the contracts to build the dam. Since the World Bank and other funders have refused to finance the dam, the Tanzanian government itself is financing this massive amount.

Clearly there are also environmental issues with a large dam like this. Selous Game Reserve may lose its World Heritage site status. There are differing maps on how large the lake behind the dam will be. Another issue, as Kenyans realize, is that in drought years hydro power needs to be curtailed and in some case ended leading to power blackouts. With climate change, the rainfall in the watershed of the dam may be insufficient to generate the electricity that is expected.

More puzzling is the fact that Tanzania’s current total capacity is only 1504 MW. So this dam will more than double the electricity capacity of the country. Who is going to use all this additional electricity? Part of the plan is to sell some to Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia. Kenya and Uganda, though, don’t need more electricity and Zambia is exploring other sources. I wonder if there is real, live “white elephant” as in albino elephant. This dam clearly looks like one.

This dam, in my opinion, is another example of the “pyramid complex.” Environmentalists and economists put much effort into opposing this dam, yet it is in the first stages of development. How can the pyramid complex be defeated?


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David Zarembka

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