Massive Dam Threatens Spectacular Gorge Downstream of Victoria Falls

Zambia and Zimbabwe plan to move ahead with the $4 billion Batoka Gorge Dam that would displace villagers, wildlife, and a vibrant rafting industry along the Zambezi River.

MORE THAN 50 MEN traverse the steep, rocky gorge. They balance as many as three kayaks on their back each, along with other equipment for rafting companies offering trips in the Batoka Gorge. Sweat glistens on their skin; they earn a dollar for each kayak. These porters come from the Indigenous Tokaleya villages situated along the edge of the gorge, on either side of the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. For the Tokaleya, the Zambezi River is an essential and sacred deity. It’s also a source of income. Tens of thousands of tourists raft the Zambezi’s rapids each year, drawn to the region’s rich ecosystem. Alongside the Tokeleya, birds, fish, and other wildlife make their home in the gorge.

Victoria Falls and Batoka Gorge
A 550-foot tall mega-dam planned for the Batoka Gorge, seen here, would create a 16-square-mile reservoir just below Victoria Falls, visible in the far background, and flood the canyon. Photo by Johnny Peacock.

Yet the section of the river that runs through Batoka Gorge is threatened. In June 2019, the General Electric Company of the United States and the Power Construction Corporation of China signed a deal with the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments to build and finance the Batoka Gorge Dam. The danger from a massive hydroelectric project, which was first proposed nearly 70 years ago, has become urgent.

Africa’s fourth largest river, the Zambezi flows through six countries. The Batoka Gorge section begins at the bottom of Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world, also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke That Thunders.” A few miles from Livingstone, Zambia, massive roaring waters spill from the sky and turn clear green as the river races through steep, dark canyon walls down the 50-mile gorge. The river then meanders for another 200 miles until it reaches Lake Kariba, the world’s largest reservoir by volume and an example of what Batoka Gorge could become.

I am a river guide, and in October 2019, I embarked on a four-day trip down Batoka Gorge as part of a two-week river guide training. Most of our guides, Melvin Ndelelwa, James Linyando, and Emmanuel Ngenda, were from the Tokaleya villages. Ndelelwa, who was a porter before becoming a river guide, pulled out a picture of a fish he caught at a hidden pool below the falls. It was almost as big as he is. His father was a porter his whole life. Becoming a raft guide in Zambia is hard work. The possibility of learning to guide energizes the porters.

Ndelelwa explains how his younger brother carves ebony root to make Nyami Nyami necklaces. The Nyami Nyami is a mythic river god, a serpent with the head of a fish. Legend has it, this god is angry that his sweetheart is trapped downstream behind the giant Kariba Dam. In 1956, a year into construction, the Nyami Nyami flooded the river, wreaking havoc on the construction site. The odds of another flood in 1957 were a thousand to one. Yet the river rose three meters higher than before, destroying the bridge, cofferdam, and parts of the main wall.

The guides told us that the Nyami Nyami would protect us when we wear the necklace that honors his sweetheart. On the river, I touched mine often, praying for safe passage. I am terrified of big water and scared of flipping. The Zambezi is a huge volume river with little exposed rock. It is extremely challenging, with long and powerful rapids, steep gradients, and big drops. Flipping is common. In high-pressure areas, you can’t even depend on your life jacket to keep your head above water.

On the river, I clung to the raft in awe and terror at the size of the waves. October is the dry season, when the water is low. In December, the rains raise the river and turn it muddy brown. Linyando navigated ahead in a safety kayak while Ngenda captained our raft. At one point between rapids, he pointed out the camouflaged crocodiles sun-bathing on rocks.

Halfway through the training, I was invited to guide the most challenging rapid, Gulliver’s Travels. I had already guided the rapid just prior called Devil’s Toilet Bowl twice, but my angle was off on this third attempt. The raft flipped backwards. I went deep underwater. It was dark and silent. A shaft of light appeared. Then more light. I surfaced. We turned the boat upright, but my confidence was shaken. I thought of backing out of Gulliver’s Travels, until the guides encouraged me. Back in the boat, I sent the raft through.

Throughout the trip, I felt that the guides protected me. Ndelelwa offered his sandal for the steep hike out after I lost my shoe. “This is my home,” he said. “It’s easy for me to walk barefoot.” Later, when I encountered a puff adder — a venomous snake with a bite that can be deadly — near my sleeping bag, Ngenda helped me move closer to the fire. “We sleep here,” he said. “The snakes don’t like fire.” It smolders all night smoking fish for breakfast, a staple food in villages along the gorge.

IN 2015, THE WORLD BANK funded an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) that concluded that the dam is a “cheap” solution to the “electricity deficit” of Zambia and Zimbabwe. An airport and road have already been constructed. The reservoir of the 550-foot tall mega-dam will be 16 square miles and a half-mile from the put-in just below Victoria Falls, impacting a UNESCO World Heritage Site sacred to the Tokaleya peoples. The entire canyon will be drowned and destroyed.

If the dam build goes ahead, wildlife who live and breed in the gorge will be lost or displaced. The Cornish jack and bottlenose fish need fast-moving water to survive. The extremely rare Taita falcon is endemic to Batoka Gorge — it nests and breeds only here. The hooves of the small klipspringer antelope are designed to jump up and down the canyon. They will not be able to live on top. Leopards that live in the gorge will be forced to move to higher ground, becoming more vulnerable to hunting and poaching.

The ecological damage is layered with the human toll. Downstream from Batoka Gorge, the Kariba Dam, built in the late 1950s, displaced 57,000 Indigenous Gwembe Tonga and Kore Kore peoples, while stranding thousands of animals on islands. Kariba Dam has also demonstrated that imprisoning a river damages water quality, reduces the amount of water available for people and wildlife downstream, and harms the fertility of the land. Dams can also spread waterborne diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, while mega-dams may cause earthquakes and destructive floods.

Plus, the lifespan of a dam is 50 years. Less than 30 years after construction, Kariba Dam began falling apart, causing earthquakes and operating at less than 30 percent its proposed capacity. Falling water levels have made it increasingly less productive. The Chinese construction company regularly pours concrete into the wall to keep it from buckling. If it broke, it could cause a tsunami that would impact much of Mozambique and even Madagascar, potentially killing millions.

The Batoka Gorge project will cost around four billion dollars. It is supposed to take 10 to 13 years to complete, but some locals have noticed that high cost infrastructure projects often do not reach completion in Zambia. Increasing droughts due to climate change raise the question whether there will be enough water to operate a dam. Electricity generated is likely to be sold to foreign countries for income, while local people become poorer.

The dam will also displace river guides and most likely the villages along the gorge. Tourism is the third largest industry in Zambia. The governments say the dam’s construction will create jobs, but many of these jobs go to Chinese nationals hired by Chinese companies, and after construction ends, few will be needed to operate the dam. Some say the dam will create new tourism opportunities, like parasailing and wakeboarding, but crocodiles and hippos proliferate in flat water, making these activities risky.

China is rapidly expanding its global reach, including in Africa, through its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure project extending to 60 countries and counting. The country has already financed two Zambian airports and the Itezhi Tezhi Dam, and owns a 60 percent share of Zambia national broadcasting service. As many less developed countries borrow big money from China for big infrastructure projects, they are incurring large debts. The debt incurred can be crushing to the food supplies, health services, and education of local people. As Daimone Suilapwa writes in the Zambian Observer, huge kickbacks are the root of the problem. They motivate Zambian leaders to negotiate deals with China. Millions of dollars go missing. Projects are not finished. The natural world and local people suffer.

Most river guides hope the dam never happens, but local rafting companies are afraid to speak out against it. They fear repercussions — from being shot to having their passport or business license revoked. International support is imperative if we want to see this river protected.

ALONG THE RIVER, villagers carve and sell wooden figurines: elephants, rhinos, lions, water buffalo. Ndelelwa always buys some, though he does not need them. I bought carvings too, and the vendor insisted on giving me a few extra.

Then Ndelelwa invited me to his village to eat nshima, a traditional thick maize porridge. We sat outside the round mud huts with grass roofs. Five children ran over to look at me with toothy smiles and a wide-eyed curiosity. As we ate from one bowl, I thanked them in their dialect, “Ndalumba.

If the river is dammed, I wonder, what will happen to these people? How will they survive?

The last time I flipped the raft on the Zambezi, the waves were gentle. We held the perimeter rope of the capsized boat as we floated through a narrow section of canyon. Ngenda smiled as he turned the boat upright.

Dam projects are rarely stopped in industrial civilization. Save the Zambezi formed to oppose the construction of this dam. They seek help in challenging the ESIA. This dam will likely go ahead unless there is an unprecedented outcry of resistance. The Nyami Nyami protected us on the river. Perhaps his rage may once again knock down any walls placed in his path. I touch my necklace and pray for the river.

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