Tapping its own source

Namibia is only able to produce 25% of its power needs and has always relied heavily on imports from South Africa. Since South Africa’s installed capacity is projected to run out by 2007, there is an urgent need for Namibia to develop its local resources.

But when the Namibian government recently announced plans to revive the controversial Epupa- Baynes hydroelectric scheme, opposing voices from Namibian opposition party DTA and environmental groups Earthlife Africa and the International Rivers Network raised concerns.

The Epupa dam study was halted in 1998 when the environmental assessment report conducted by a Norwegian-led consortium found that social and environmental issues had been neglected. The main objections against building the dam came from the affected Himba people living in northern Koakoland.

At the time of the study to assess the generating power of the Kunene river in Namibia, two main sites were investigated for hydroelectric schemes. The Baynes site, favoured by the Angolans, proved more cost- effective and less environmentally damaging than the Epupa site only 80km upstream at the Epupa Falls. It is still unclear which site has been agreed on for development.

The Epupa site would inundate a 250km2 area vital to the sustainability of the Himba’s pastoral lifestyle. Up to 6 000 mature fan palms would be lost, currently providing sustenance to both the Himba and the desert elephants in times of drought, and the Epupa Falls would be flooded along with nearly 100 sacred burial sites, vital to the Himba’s ceremonial rituals.

When asked about the 1 000 Himba people that would have to be relocated to make way for the scheme, NamPower director Dr T Hangala said that “the number of people to be displaced is minimal … Namibia is a vast and beautiful country where all its citizens, including the Ovahimba will have no problem finding a comfortable place to live, be it near or far from Epupa.”

Felix Unite, a South African tour operator who has been taking visitors up to the Kunene river for years, said ecotourism is on the increase.

“There is an increased fascination from people all over the world to see how this ethnic minority live,” explained anthropologist Margaret Jacobsohn in her book, Himba. Jacobsohn lived among the people for five years before publishing an insightful book in 1990 accompanied by the captivating photos of Peter and Beverly Pickford.

In 2001 Craig Matthew of Doxa Productions produced a multiple-award-winning documentary entitled Ochre and Water that took seven years to make. Its broadcast was pivotal in raising awareness about the environmental impact of the dam and showing the economic independence of the Himba as cattle farmers.   

Apart from the Epupa hydroelectric scheme, Namibia also has the option of developing an 800MW gas-fired power plant at Oranjemund, which will be driven by natural gas sourced about 130km offshore at the Kudu Gas Fields.

The Oranjemund plant would not only be able to cope with Namibia’s entire energy demand of about 350MW, but also profit by supplying surplus energy into the power grids of neighbouring states.

“At the current price estimate of US$750-million, the capital cost of Epupa compared with Kudu is very similar, explained Hangala.

“The running costs of Epupa are much less than those of Kudu, but Kudu can provide much more energy and is not dependent on rainfall.”

Kudu, however, has had a tough time holding on to its investors. Since Shell Exploration and ChevronTexaco pulled out, only South African-based exploration firm Energy Africa remains to fund the pre-engineering phase. Energy Africa MD Rhidwaan Gasant has said that a new partner will only need to be found in 2005 once the pre- engineering study is completed.

Neither Kudu nor Epupa can be regarded as purely renewable projects. Both are potential green-house gas producers, having an effect on climate change.

NamPower’s most advanced exploration study in the Caprivi Strip, however, is said to be categorised as a “greenfield site” because of its minimal impact on the environment.

The Popa Falls Hydro Project — also known as Divundu — with an estimated price tag of $54-million, seeks to use the hydraulic lift of the Okavango river as it flows through the Caprivi Strip to generate 20MW of power.

Namibia would be likely to proceed with this project even if the other two got off the ground, as the Caprivi is relatively isolated from the main supply lines.

In response to concerns from Botswana that the Okavango Delta will be affected by the reduction in sediment flow, NamPower have proposed a run-of-the-river scheme that will return clean water to the system, as well as an option to continuously pump sediment through the weir.

With an average annual rainfall of between 150mm and 250mm, Namibia needs to reduce its dependency on rain-reliant schemes such as Ruacana and Epupa.

As a member of the Southern African Power Pool, it stands in line to receive power from the soon-to-be upgraded Inga scheme in the Democractic Republic of Congo, which is tipped to be able to solve the entire continent’s energy needs if its full potential of 40 000MW is tapped.

Kristina Gubic is a freelance environmental writer

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday