June 19, 2019
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
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
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
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.
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.