Paying a high price

Forty thousand dams have rendered 60 million people homeless the worldover

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Chief David Syankusule is one of the 57,000 Tonga people from Zambia and Zimabwe who had to make way for the construction of the Kariba Dam in the late 1950s. "The colonial government decided they were going to build a dam irrespective of whether we accepted it or not," he recalls, adding with a shudder: "Everything was buried by the water and soldiers were sent to kill our people because they did not want to move." The story of Josephina Khambule is also similar. Thirteen years after her ancestral home got buried beneath a major dam outside Durban in South Africa, she lives in a tiny government tin shack.

Perhaps the next time we turn on a tap we will spare a thought for the millions of people across the globe whose homes and history were destroyed to bring water and electricity to our homes. Take the case of the Kariba Dam. Today, the dam provides electricity to millions of city-dwellers in Harare, Lusaka and beyond. Industry has thrived and commercial fishing companies have made a packet from commercial fish harvests. Tourists from Europe and Japan can sip cocktails on luxury holiday-boats in between photographing the elephants and glorious African sunsets on Lake Kariba. Yet across the lake in Binga, Zimbabwe, electricity only arrived in 1990. Before the dam was built, the Tonga people had access to clean water from the fast-flowing Zambezi River. But now that the river has been replaced with the lake and many of the people relocated to rockier and less fertile land, they have to travel up to 15 km to collect clean water. "We are also suffering from water-borne diseases like bilharzia and malaria because we live next to stagnant water," the chief says, sadly pointing out: "Our children are running out of blood. Their bodies are sick and thin because of malaria."

A similar spectre is about to be repeated in Namibia and Angola where the proposed Epupa Dam on the Cunene River could affect as many as 10,000 nomadic Himba people who rely on the river basin in times of poor rainfall. "When they first told us about the dam, they mentioned there would be a water supply for us. But they didn't tell us it would inundate 180 square km of Himba land," says Motjinduiko Mutambo Kapika, a member of the Himba tribe whose homes and pastoral land are threatened by the proposed dam.

But there have been cases, though rare, when the government has relented to people's wishes. Orapa in Botswana presents one such instance. "Most of Botswana is dry, but the Okavango river delta is green. So there is constant pressure to utilise these waters for development... to commit collective theft," explains Olive Sephuma, representative of the the Okavango Liaison Group, a community organisation formed in 1990 to examine the implications of a water-supply project to feed the diamond mines of Orapa.

The project was all set to go ahead in January 1991, when a remarkable thing happened. The community reaiding near the delta called a "kotla" meeting and invited the government to debate the project. On January 11 the concerned government minister came to the kotla. "Usually one has 50 to 100 people at a kotla meeting. But on this day 700 people turned up and it lasted seven hours," recalls Sephuma. Community members talked about how they did not want the plan and how this was not the right thing to do, because they believed that "one cannot fiddle with the environment in that way and not expect to suffer in some way." The government dropped the project.

Like Sephuma, representatives of numerous communities -- from India to Namibia -- are starting to tell their heart-rending stories to the World Commission on Dams based in Cape Town, South Africa. The commission is compiling a report that will be published in August this year.

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