By David Banks, Regional Managing Director, Africa Program
My family’s float trip down the Colorado River this June turned out to be more than a chance to connect with nature: We were on a journey through the geologic ages. As I looked up at the walls of the Grand Canyon from our small wooden dory, I was struck by how insignificant humans are compared with this natural wonder. And yet at every river mile, I was reminded of the ways people had significantly altered this intricate hydrological system.
Since the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963, the Colorado River has not functioned naturally. Fish that need warm, muddy water are now at risk of extinction, and sandy beaches no longer form. The great rapids of the river have been tamed by a mighty wall of concrete. Despite this huge cost to nature, the reservoir formed by the dam now stands half-empty.
It makes you wonder whether there isn’t a better way.
Africa’s booming energy requirements make it a target for massive dam development, and Gabon is in the bull’s-eye. Just like the American Southwest in the mid-1900s, Gabon is wild and intact. A low population density and a conservation-minded government have helped protect its forests and retain free-flowing rivers. It is as it once was.
Gabon is growing, and I worry about the future. As with everywhere we work, we need to be realistic that we can’t hold development back. But we can help the people of a country find a way forward that is better than the past. That’s why we’re providing Gabon with the science it needs to site and design dams that provide its citizens with power while also allowing for natural flows.
But it’s not just more dams in Africa’s future: Massive ports threaten busy fisheries, modern highways crisscross pathways created by generations of stomping elephants, and ancient dirt is turned over to create new farms.
Our time to act is now.
By working together — with governments, NGOs, and communities that have not always had a voice in the process — we can find a balance between this unprecedented growth and the wildness that has been the natural hallmark of this continent.
It’s easy to feel insignificant when you’re sitting at the base of the Grand Canyon or in the middle of a Gabonese rainforest. But I hope that our collective actions will mean something to Africa’s lands, waters, and the wild things that depend on them, including all of us.
Find out how you can support our efforts to protect Africa's wild places.