Tanzania Chooses Energy over the Environment


Deutsche Welle

Date Published

In the Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania, construction work has begun in earnest on a controversial hydropower plant. Earlier this month, Energy Minister Mesard Kaleman announced that preparations had been completed and the two Egyptian companies awarded the contract could now go ahead with building the dam on the Rufiji River. 

For the government of the East African nation, the project marks a decisive step in the process of improving the electricity supply countrywide. With an output of 2.1 gigawatts, the power plant should more than double Tanzania’s current energy production.

The project has been widely criticized as it involves large-scale destruction of the game reserve which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Some experts doubt whether building the dam actually makes sense, not least because people living in remote areas often lack a connection to the electricity grid. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNEP), only 10 percent of the population in rural areas have access. Johannes Kirchgatter of the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) does not believe energy supply problems can be solved by building a mega dam above the Stiegler Gorge.

In an interview with DW, he said this had not been part of the original energy program. On the contrary, there had been talk of the need to diversify in order to guarantee the supply of energy. Kirchgatter says this is vital “as Tanzania is already dependent to a large degree on the water of the Rufiji River.” Power plants already exist upstream. As a result of climate change, droughts now occur more frequently in this region, Kirchgatter said, and it would not be wise to rely on the water of a single river.

Success Questionable

Someone else who thinks that a mega project of this kind will not be able to solve Tanzania’s electricity supply problems is German politician Christoph Hoffmann, development spokesman of the FDP parliamentary group in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

Hoffmann says Tanzania does not have enough water pipes or grid connections, which means that if more electricity were to be produced, it could not be transported to the regions where it is needed. One can only speculate about the dam’s economic success, Hoffman told DW, but it is a fact that vast areas of forest have been destroyed ahead of construction. Against the background of the global climate crisis, there can be no justification for allowing so many trees to be felled ” which could have stored carbon dioxide,” he said.

During a Bundestag debate in January this year, Hoffmann’s Liberal Free Democrats argued for development aid for Tanzania to be linked to the country abandoning construction of the dam. This was widely criticized by other parties. 

The debate ended with the approval of a proposal made by the conservative CDU/ CSU parties together with the Social Democrats (SPD), calling on both the German and Tanzanian governments to look for alternatives to the mega project which would not endanger the status of the game reserve.

The FDP proposal was rejected by the Greens who said it amounted to dictating to the Tanzanian government what it should do. A separate proposal, to use gas turbines as an interim solution, was also turned down, with several parliamentarians saying that would open the door for another 50 years of fossile fuel burning.

Project Financing Unclear

Hoffmann regrets the outcome. He says his party’s suggestion would have allowed Tanzania’s president John Magafuli to save face while securing the country’s power supply. Time would also have been won to build a decentralized, sustainable source of power. Hoffmann points out that the Bundestag had agreed to provide financial support for the Selous Game Reserve. Therefore, he says, if Tanzania were to destroy the reserve, the consequence should be that the financial aid would be stopped. “Otherwise the government would not be credible in the eyes of its own taxpayers. You can’t support something that is then destroyed.”

Hoffmann is not optimistic that the project can still be stopped. The financing is far from secure — so far some $500 million (€446 million) has been made available. Estimates of the total costs range from $3.9 billion to $10 billion. According to Hoffmann, it has not been possible so far to establish where the money is to come from. Neither the World Bank nor the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have approved loans. Hoffmann suspects China could get involved.

Africa’s Largest Game Reserve

“The Tanzanian government thinks it can generate a certain pressure to act by creating a fait accompli,” the WWF’s Kirchgatter told DW. If the region is removed from the UNESCO list, it may be possible to attract additional investors since the argument that a world heritage site was being destroyed would no longer be relevant.

The Selous Game Reserve is considered to be Africa’a largest. It covers more than 50,000 square kilometres (19,305 square miles). Its rich flora and fauna secured it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1982.

It is home to hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, rare African wild dogs and more than 400 bird species. Five years ago it moved on to the red list of endangered culture sites as the numbers of animals were falling as a result of organized poaching. The hydropower plant could result in Selous being struck off the list altogether.

Devastating consequences

To build the dam, the future flooding area must be freed of all vegetation. That’s an area that far exceeds 1,000 square kilometres. The consequences would be devastating, Kirchgatter says. Along with the dam, roads and settlements would also be created in the reserve area and the whole region would become industrialized. Outside the reserve, downstream, the consequences would also be dramatic. There would be no more floodings as in the past to supply the mangrove swamps in the river delta with sweet water and protect the coast. Fishermen in the delta could suffer if it dried out.