If built, the proposed hydroelectric Bakota Gorge Dam on the Zambezi River, 60km downstream of Victoria Falls, could have marked environmental and economic impacts for the region, warns the Environmental Research Policy Unit’s (EPRU’s) Prof Tony Leiman.
The dam will flood back up the gorge to between 5km and 10km beneath the falls, into a part of the river where white water operators from Zimbabwe and Zambia run their one, two and five day ‘white water’ trips. This form of adventure tourism is estimated to bring US$3.5 million into the local economy each year.
‘The economic loss of this industry isn’t just in the immediate value of white water rafting, but also the ‘multiplier’ benefits,’ explains Leiman. ‘The risk is that the many international visitors drawn by the adventure tourism reputation of the area would either not come at all, or stay for much shorter periods.’
The dam would also impact fishing, since the depth of the dam will mean the water in the gorge will become cold and deoxygenated.
However, the best known threat is to the Taita falcon, which nests in the area.
The EPRU’s Prof Anthony Leiman and Dr Jane Turpie are conducting an economic assessment of the dam’s impacts on the regional economy as part of a team investigating the project’s sensitivity to future climate change.
The hydroelectric scheme is intended to help address Zimbabwe’s power shortages, and at the same time cut carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-generated electricity.
Leiman explains that the economic study is intended to support computer modelling of the dam’s sensitivity to climate change’s effects on the upper Zambezi catchment.
‘The hydroelectric plant will be designed to run at full capacity when the river is a peak flow, when all four turbines are operating,’ says Leiman. ‘During low water periods as many as three of those would shut down. If the whole region should become drier the viability of the project might be seriously compromised.’
The Zambezi River Authority - a joint body representing all states on the Zambezi River - has also commissioned a new environmental impact assessment, since an earlier one was completed in 1993 and is now outdated. A new engineering assessment, and a climate impact assessment are also to being done at this time.
The EPRU’s economic assessment forms a part of the climate impact assessment study.
All three studies are due to be completed by mid-2015.