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MOZAMBIQUE: Watching the Water Flow Away

Zenaida Machado

MAPUTO, Oct 23 2009 (IPS) - Less than 100 kilometres from the second-largest dam in Africa, women walk with their babies strapped on their back, water pails balanced on their heads.

They walk slowly, their bodies tired. And as night falls, and darkness hits the red sand of the dirt road, they disappear into the dark

"I have been using this way since I got married and came to live here, 10 years ago. Sometimes I have to queue for long hours until I find water. Every two days, I leave home at four o’clock in the morning and I come back to rest when the sun goes down," explains Benedita Cadeado, 32, mother of three children.

Cadeado walks about 20 km from her small village in the surroundings of Songo to reach the nearest place with public tap water. And then she walks back.

"I always come to carry water with three containers of 20 litres – enough to supply my family needs for two days. That forces me to go down and up the mountain three times a day. I am already used (to it). We move in groups so that the road distance to my village seems shorter," she added.

Along the very same road, emerging from the green forest enveloping the Mozambican mountains crossed by the Zambezi River, lies the majestic Cahora Bassa. It is Africa’s second-largest water and electricity infrastructure.

The hydroelectric dam situated in the district of Cahora Bassa, in the central province of Tete, is based in the village of Songo.

Here there are houses with swimming pools and well-watered gardens. Restaurants and petrol garages are situated along asphalted roads. These were built to provide comfort to the local residents – most of whom work at the dam.

The electricity from Cahora Bassa does not cover the entire plateau of Songo village, or even the entire district. And it has yet to reach all the districts of the Tete province.

"We were told that the dam produces energy… I thought that big house (dam) could only keep water. Last year, they told us that Cahora Bassa doesn’t belong anymore to (the) Portuguese and now belongs to us… and that because of that, we would finally have electricity power at home… I am still waiting," explains Cadeado.

In November 2007, Mozambique took complete control of the Cahora Bassa dam from Portugal ending, decades of a negotiation process between the two countries.

After Mozambique’s independence in 1975, the Portuguese handed political power over to Mozambique but retained an 82 percent stake in the dam.

However, two years after the Cahora Bassa reverted to Mozambique, people in south Songo village still do not have electricity. Instead they rely on solar panels, candles or oil lamps.

They are forced to watch as neighbouring South Africa buys what should be their electricity. The electricity is transferred across more than 1,000 kilometres to South Africa, while less than 100 kilometres away from the dam people do not have electricity.

Tap water from the dam only covers a very small area around the barrage. So the majority of Songo population uses the river flow as a source of drinking and washing water.

Here, like in most of the Tete districts around the Zambezi River, the population depend on the fishing and agriculture. Both of these means of survival are affected when the Zambezi floods annually.

Moving out of Songo, about 60 kilometres downstream of the river, the village of Changara will witness the 2011 the construction of another major water and power infrastructure, the Mphanda Nkuwa dam.

The Mphanda Nkuwa dam is expected to occupy an area of 100 square metres, and is believed to be a solution for the current power shortages in part of the southern African region.

"We (the region) have been facing power cut-offs. A dam like Mpanda Nkuwa in Mozambique will help to improve the electricity distribution in the region," says Phera Ramoeli from the SADC Water Secretariat.

The new dam will produce 1,350 megawatts power. Mozambique consumes about 900 megawatts – enough to light about 400,000 homes. The Cahora Bassa dam, also on the Zambezi River, already produces more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity, which is mostly supplied to Eskom in South Africa.

Ramoeli said that the Mphanda Nkuwa dam will help prevent floods and will support development in areas surrounding the Zambezi River.

"You can see how much water flows in the Victory falls. We need to find ways of using that water in benefit of local people. That water, if well managed, can boost the development of people living on the Zambezi area," Ramoeli explained.

However, Mozambican environmental activists defend against the construction of the dam saying it will only worsen the living conditions of the population of Changara and other villages across the Zambezi.

"The construction of the Mpanda Nkuwa dam will force the resettlement of more than 1,400 small farmers who were told very little about their future situation," says the Justiça Ambiental (Environmental Justice), an environmental group.

The group advocates that Mozambique already has enough dams which, if well managed, can bring considerable benefits to the population who, according to them, have so far received very little from the Cahora Bassa dam.

"The construction will cause fluctuations in the level of the Zambezi River, which is already affected by Cahora Bassa Dam, damaging the fishing activity, river traffic and the agriculture on the Zambezi basin, making population more vulnerable to disasters such as drought, floods and hunger," defends Justiça Ambiental.

The environmental group also says that the local community should be informed about the risks of having a dam constructed in an earthquake area. Mphanda Nkuwa dam will be built in central Mozambique, near Machaze district in Manica province. This was the epicentre of the 7.5 on the Richter scale earthquake in 2006.

"No development can be made without negative impacts," explained Ramoeli from the SADC Water Secretariat whose mandate is to guarantee a fair distribution of water resources around the southern African region.

"We (SADC) are current carrying projects, with our engineers on how to minimise negative impacts to local environment. These projects consider all groups politics, science, society…We have to consider all the aspects involving environment and development," the SADC expert added.

The construction of the Mpanda Nkuwa dam has been made one of the priorities of the Mozambican government during.

In a report from December 2008, the Mozambique ministry of energy describes the dam as ‘one of the most important projects to generate and supply electricity power to southern African region’.

The minister of energy, Salvador Namburete, has emphasised government’s commitment to the construction of the dam. He has also stressed that ‘the project will follow the recommendations of the environmental studies’.

The results of the preliminary environmental study for the construction of the Mpanda Nkuwa dam were delivered to the government in early September.

The document, not yet made public, should indicate the existence or not of barriers to the implementation of the project, and present recommendations on environmental and engineering aspects to be considered during the construction process that is expected to be finished by 2015.

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