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Last Thursday, John Magufuli, Tanzania’s president, confirmed the government’s intentions to press on with plans to build a hydropower dam which is expected to provide an additional 2,100 megawatts of electricity for the country. There’s just one problem: the dam will be built in Selous game reserve, a UNESCO-designated heritage site.
Spanning over 20,000 square miles, a land area larger than Denmark, Selous is considered one of the largest protected wild areas in Africa and is home to several wildlife species as well as an “exceptionally high variety of habitats.”
In building the dam, which has been part of Tanzania’s electricity master-plan since the mid-1980s, Magufuli hopes to replicate Ethiopia’s success in diversifying its power generation methods. Earlier this year, during the Ethiopian prime minister’s state visit to Tanzania, Magufuli agreed a partnership for Ethiopia to facilitate the construction of the dam.
Even though Tanzania has a variety of energy resources, including natural gas, biomass, hydropower, geothermal, coal, solar and wind power, much of the potential is yet to be fully developed. President Magufuli is determined to raise the country’s level of industrialization and energy will play a key role in fulfilling that ambition. Most Tanzanians do not have access to electricity. Only 10% of households have access to the national grid, according to UNDP.
However, the new dam’s promise of improving Tanzania’s power supply is dampened by the “serious and irreversible damage” it could wreak on wildlife in the reserve which is already considered at peril. In 2014, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee placed Selous game reserve on its list of world heritage sites in danger mainly due to large-scale poaching. Increased access to the area, due to the dam’s construction and operation, could result in an uptick in poaching activities which have decimated the reserve’s wildlife population said the Committee. Building the dam on a major river in the reserve is also expected to have a negative impact wildlife in the area.
Between 1982, when it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and 2014, when it was deemed in danger, elephant and rhino populations fell by “almost 90%,” according to the Committee. Much of that decimation happened in the last decade as the elephant population, estimated at nearly 40,000 in 2009 (pdf, pg. 92) was said to have declined by 66% to around 13,000 in 2013.