Development or environmental conservation: Is there even a choice?

02Jan 2019
Dar es Salaam
Financial Times
Development or environmental conservation: Is there even a choice?

THE government nearly a fortnight ago signed an agreement with a joint venture of Egyptian companies for construction of the Rufiji hydropower dam, otherwise known as the controversial Stiegler's Gorge power project.

The project has been mired by allegations of massive environmental degradation from conservationists both here at home and abroad.

Striking a balance between the environment and economic growth leads to sustainable development.

Therefore, if we are to achieve sustainable development in Tanzania, a 2,115-megawatt power plant at Stiegler's Gorge can and should be developed while also at the same time protecting the environment.

We believe that the environment and development need not be mutually exclusive.

As Tanzania wants to develop into a middle income country come 2025, the government should strive to achieve its industrialization agenda — the brainchild of President John Magufuli.

And it does not need rocket science to understand that electricity is the engine of an industrial economy. Therefore, the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project could be the right dose to the country’s industrialization drive.

In implementing this mega electricity generation project we partially concur with our partners’ concerns on the need to conserve the environment, but at the same time we need to implement projects that are beneficial to the people of this country.

We concur with an opinion piece written recently by a Tanzanian columnist based in Canada who queried why the environment becomes an issue only when an African country tries some project that could pull it out of dependence.

The columnist went on to ask; how many thousands of trees do people fell daily to get fuel as a replacement due to lack of electricity? And how many Tanzanians will stop using charcoal and switch to electricity after the project is completed?

Although the multi-million dollar project has raised alarm over possible adverse environmental effects, we stand by President Magufuli’s position that the project would in fact improve the surrounding ecosystem rather than hinder it.

According to the president, unlike Japan that produces electricity from uranium, Tanzania has not opted for using the mineral for power generation.

Conservation groups including the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have raised concerns since the project was mooted in 2009, and have consistently called for the project to be abandoned. The IUCN called the project “fatally flawed.”

Indeed, the Selous Game Reserve is one of the last major expanses of wilderness in Africa. It’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site the size of Switzerland. Since 2014, it has been on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, primarily because of elephant poaching. In less than 40 years, the park lost 90 per cent of its elephants.

We should sometimes stand firm as the global conservation organisations claim that the planned hydropower dam could have an even more devastating impact.

When Ethiopia embarked on the GIBE III hydropower dam, rights groups raised concerns over the impact that the project could have caused to the environment. The construction of the dam started in 2006 and was officially inaugurated in December 2016.

At the start, the procurement of the dam contractor was determined to be non-transparent by the World Bank, and international donors shunned the dam. Construction also started without a license from Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Agency.

There had been ongoing complaints about environmental and social impacts downstream, including villagisation and displacement of indigenous people.

Today, Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, is boasting of hydropower that meets its domestic electricity demand and also looks forward to exporting power to neighbouring countries.

In Egypt, the Aswan Dam, an embankment dam built across the Nile in Aswan, was constructed between 1960 and 1970. The dam is also beneficial to Egypt in the sense that it is controlling the annual floods on the Nile River and prevents the damage which used to occur along the floodplain.

The Aswan Dam provides about half of Egypt's power supply and has improved navigation along the river by keeping the water flow consistent.

The Aswan Dam has also created a new fishing industry where fishing has always been a way of life for many in Egypt along the Nile River. When the construction of the dam was finished, it changed how commercial fishing was handled. Every year, more than 25,000 tons of seafood are harvested from the waters in and around the dam. In return, a new and thriving fishing industry has created economic benefits for many in the region.

Armed with these facts, surely, the hydropower from the Stiegler's Gorge project will be needed to transform Tanzania’s economy as the dam and resulting reservoir would cover only 3 per cent of the game reserve. Let’s support President Magufuli in his daring move.