Tanzania to build Stiegler’s Gorge dam in a wildlife reserve and Unesco site

President Magufuli in unmovable in going ahead with the Stiegler’s Gorge dam despite conservationists’ warnings of the damage it will cause the Selous Game Reserve’s ecosystem and wildlife.

The Tanzanian government has inaugurated the construction of the so-called Stiegler’s Gorge dam, officially known as the Rufiji Hydropower Project. It will be built on the Rufiji River in the Selous Game Reserve, which has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1982 and is one of the most iconic wildlife areas in Africa relatively undisturbed by human activity. According to the authorities, the hydroelectric structure will be 130 metres high and 700 meters wide, covering an area of 1,350 square kilometres and with the capacity to hold back 34 billion cubic metres of water. The project, estimated to boost the country’s erratic electricity generation capacity by 2,115 megawatts, has been awarded to two Egyptian companies, El Sewedy Electric Co. and Arab Contractors via a contract worth a staggering 3.6 billion dollars.

Yet international experts have questioned its economic viability. They argue that costs could spiral to 9.8 billion dollars, more than doubling the present budget and making a return on investment anytime soon unlikely, given that the forecast completion date of 2021 will probably run over by at least six years.

stiegler's gorge dam tanzania inauguration
Tanzania inaugurates the Stiegler’s Gorge dam, which will boost power supply but threaten the ecosystem © Egypt Independent

The Tanzanian dam project’s environmental impact

Conservationists, who have quietly been celebrating a decline in poaching in Tanzania in recent years, see the construction of the dam as a catastrophe and have consistently called for the project to be halted. In a letter to Tanzanian President John Magufuli, Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay expressed concern about the threat the dam would pose. “We’re concerned that a decision to go forward with the construction of the Stiegler’s dam is likely to have a devastating and irreversible impact on Selous’ unique ecosystem, and that it will jeopardise the potential of the site to contribute to sustainable development,” she stressed.

audrezy azoulay Unesco Director General
Audrey Azoulay, Unesco Director General, has warned that the Selous reserve is on the brink of losing its World Heritage site status © Christelle Alix/Unesco

An independent review commissioned by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlights the inadequacy of the project’s environmental impact assessment, in which specific impacts on the site’s World Heritage values haven’t been credibly addressed. Peter Shadie, Director of the World Heritage Programme at the IUCN, said the construction of a hydropower facility with large reservoirs inside a World Heritage site is incompatible with its status as a protected area, adding that the scheme would involve major infrastructure development and the deforestation of nearly 1,000 square kilometres at the centre of the Selous Game Reserve.

“The Stiegler’s Gorge dam project is unacceptable; it would cut the heart out of the Selous reserve, with catastrophic impacts on the site’s wildlife and habitats. The commitment to protect World Heritage sites for future generations is a collective one, which neither Tanzania nor any other country can choose to ignore,” he commented.

In response, environmental group Green World Warriors has launched a petition urging the Tanzanian government to immediately halt the construction of the dam. “Environmentalists fear the final destruction of the already seriously compromised protected area,” where poaching has reduced the elephant population by 90 per cent since 1982, the organisation writes. “There’s no question that Tanzania sorely needs a better power grid, but this dam project isn’t the answer“.
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Tanzanian President John Magufuli says he won’t listen to critics of the Stiegler’s dam © Wikimedia

Magufuli governing with an iron fist

During the 41st World Heritage Committee session in Poland in July 2017, the Tanzanian government’s delegation asserted the country’s firm position to execute the project, arguing that the dam has been on its agenda since the 1960s, before the Selous Game Reserve was included in the World Heritage List. President Magufuli, on his part, remains defiant. “I believe that this is the start of economic liberation. In this country only 10 per cent of our people are connected to the national grid and this is unacceptable,” he stated. But after backlash from conservationists, he downplayed fears for the environment, saying that by providing energy the dam would deter locals from felling trees for charcoal. He added that the dam and the reservoir would cover only 3 per cent of the Selous reserve and that he wouldn’t listen to critics who spoke “without facts.”

In recent years, Magufuli has been accused of governing his country with an iron fist. Since he came to power in 2015, independent newspapers have been shutdown and more than 20 opposition MPs have been arrested. One of the president’s foremost parliamentary critics was shot 16 times in 2017 and is at risk for challenging the government. Questioning the relevance of the dam in public in the country is risky, as the government has gone to pains to point out. Kangi Lugola, the country’s Environment Minister, issued a warning in parliament: “The government will go on with the implementation of the project whether you like it or not. Those who resist the project will be jailed”.

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Selous residents fishing on the Rufiji River © Kris NM/Wikimedia

Poaching in the Selous Game Reserve

Four decades ago the Selous Game Reserve was home to an estimated 110,000 elephants, thought to be the continent’s largest single population at the time. In 1982, Unesco recognised the reserve and its plentiful pachyderms with a well-deserved World Heritage Site listing. Sadly, since then rampant animal poaching has brought about a perilous decline in the area’s wildlife, including populations of the rarest animals such as the black rhinoceros, elephants, African wild dogs and marine mammal species such as hippos.

Stiegler's Gorge dam tanzania selous game reserve hippos wildlife
The Selous’ plains will be flooded by a permanent rise in water levels as a consequence of the construction of the Stiegler’s Gorge dam, forcing animals such as hippos to look for new habitats © Phil Hyde/Wikimedia

The Stiegler’s Gorge dam and deforestation

What is more, seventeen local companies have been awarded tenders to clear 1,500 square kilometres of terrain and cut an estimated 2.6 million trees, with an expected value of 62 million US dollars. An area roughly twice the size of Berlin will be deforested and will vanish under water due to construction of the Stiegler’s Gorge dam.

Although Tanzania’s need for more power in order to grow and sustain local industries is undeniable, the loss of part of the iconic Selous Game Reserve will be a bitter price to pay.

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