"There is a better way. Dams don't have to take such a toll on people and nature downstream."
By Brian Richter
Pemba (far right) is a member of the Tonga tribal community, which for countless generations has lived along the Zambezi River and its tributaries in southern Zambia.
Pemba’s ancestors built their huts with river mud and reeds along the Kafue River, in a narrow gorge of rushing cascades and waterfalls that eventually flow into the Zambezi. They used spear poles and hoop nets to take tilapia and bream from deep pools in the river. They cultivated crops on the riverbanks after each year’s floods brought fresh nutrients and water to the soil.
That way of life changed abruptly in 1972 when the Kafue Gorge Dam was built to supply more than 50 percent of Zambia’s electricity. While the dam has generated badly-needed power and revenue from surplus exports to Zimbabwe and South Africa, its construction cast a shadow on the lives of people living downstream.
As poorly planned dams unravel ecosystems, cultures and livelihoods around the world — and with thousands of new dams being proposed — The Nature Conservancy is racing to help people balance how we use rivers to meet seemingly competing needs.
Natural Flow Patterns Are a River’s Heartbeat
Because of the Kafue Gorge Dam, for many days each year, very little or no water flows downstream through the Kafue River Gorge. But seasonal patterns of high and low flow are a river’s heartbeat. Without natural flows, life cycles of plants, fish and river-dependent people break down.
Today, Pemba and her family struggle to hold on, their fate tied to a much less healthy river than the one that supported her ancestors. Each day, she and her husband catch as many fish as they can. They dry and smoke the fish, and each week Pemba’s husband carries what they don’t need themselves to market. With their market proceeds they buy as much maize, for porridge, as they can afford.
But there is a better way. Dams don’t have to take such a toll on people and nature downstream.
In the Kafue and throughout the Zambezi River basin, progressive water managers are building partnerships with The Nature Conservancy and its partners such as the World Wildlife Fund to pioneer new ways to foster economic development while meeting the needs of people that are sustained by healthy rivers.
For example, the Zambian electricity agency that owns and operates the Kafue Gorge Dam has shown sincere interest and a commitment to improve the health and productivity of the river — and the families that depend upon it.
Simple Changes Can Make a World of Difference
Pemba’s story is mirrored by others around the world whose lives have been impacted by dams, from the Yangtze River in China to the Tocantins River in Brazil.
The need for the Conservancy’s rare blend of science and engineering expertise, and our willingness to divine collaborative solutions, could not be more urgent:
- More than 50,000 large dams have already been built on the planet’s rivers
- Tens of thousands of new dams are on the global drawing board, or under construction
Drawing from experience at over 600 river and lake projects — and nearly 60 years of lessons learned — the Conservancy is working all over the world with local communities, water managers, and engineers to develop solutions that protect nature and people:
- We are engaging at the highest levels of decision-making, providing science-guided counsel to partners like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the International Hydropower Association, and working with progressive water managers such as the Zambezi River basin authorities.
- With sound science as a guide, new dams can be carefully located such that they do not impact river-dependent communities, commercial fisheries, and high-priority conservation areas. The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Heritage Institute recently published a guidance manual with the World Bank that details “best practices” for dam development.
- Even simple changes to how dams are designed and operated can help sustain natural cycles. And using science to help direct new dams away from the most sensitive areas can make a world of difference for people like the Tonga.
Working Together Makes Global Change Possible
Thanks to our supporters, the Conservancy has the experience and reach to make a real and lasting impact on this urgent issue. Every day our teams are sharpening our science and our business-minded solutions, and building powerful partnerships.
Pemba’s name means “the force of present existence.” Her people have shown inspiring perseverance, striving to adapt to a world disrupted by dams. But she needs partners that can make large-scale change happen.
Together with our supporters, we can and must be her partner and improve the present and future for millions of others like her around the world.