Namibia Travel Guide
Namibia Travel Guide
The Kaokoveld
Epupa Falls
Epupa Dam project

Namibia Travel Guide

Epupa Dam project

The controversy

For several years the Namibian and Angolan governments have been cooperating in studies to build a hydro-electric dam across the Kunene. Two sites have been mooted: one in the Baynes Mountains, and one at Epupa. Advocates of the scheme have pointed to Namibia's rising power consumption, and the apparent 'waste' of the Kunene's huge potential. They also cite the project as a source of work in the northern Kaokoveld – an area that lacks virtually any formal employment opportunities.

Critics regard this as a 'prestige project' for the government, which is both superfluous and damaging. They claim that its power will be expensive and unnecessary, and it will do immense damage to the Kunene's ecosystems and the culture of the Himba people who live near the river.

Cynics suggest that part of the SWAPO government's enthusiasm for the project is due to the work that it would generate for migrant workers from outside the Kaokoveld. Most would come from the densely populated areas to the east, the Owambo heartlands, which are SWAPO's constituency. They also observe that the Himba generally did not side with SWAPO during the liberation struggle, and suggest that the government is now trying to marginalise them and destroy their traditional lands and culture.

Several organisations have helped the Himba communities to put their point forward, and campaign against the dam. These include, in Namibia, the non-profit law firm Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), and, abroad, the London-based Survival.

Despite Namibia's constitution, the president, Sam Nujoma, was reported as becoming exasperated by the extended opposition to the project, which he seems to believe is fermented by foreign groups rather than local people. In June 1998 The Namibian described one of his speeches as being 'laced with hostile references to people who did not fall in line with government thinking'. The debate continues.

Survival is a worldwide organisation supporting tribal peoples. It stands for their right to decide their own future and helps them protect their lives, lands and human rights. You can join Survival by contacting them at 11–15 Emerald St, London WC1 3QL, UK; tel: 020 7242 1441; fax: 020 7242 1771; email:

The view of the Himba people

Most Himba people don't want a dam. In February 1998, 26 out of the 32 traditional leaders in the Kunene Region submitted a detailed document to the government explaining why. It noted eleven major objections to the dam:

• Loss of land The dam would inundate about 190km2 on the Namibian side of the river, including 110 permanent dwellings.
• Loss of riverine resources The narrow palm-forest beside the river is a vital source of food for both people and livestock.
• Loss of gardens Many of the Himba people cultivate small gardens on the alluvial soils.
• Disappearance of wildlife Without the river much wildlife would be lost.
• Inundation of ancestral gravesites These are very important in Himba culture in defining to whom the land belongs.
• Barrier effect of the dam Himba communities live on both sides of the river, and regularly cross it. A large dam would make this difficult or impossible.
• Health threats A large lake would introduce more malaria and bilharzia, and the influx of a mobile labour force would probably bring with it carriers of HIV infection, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
• Overcrowding The dam would require about 1,000 workers, and a construction town would probably have a population of about 5,000. When the dam is finished the area would go 'from boom to bust'.
• Increased crime The influx of construction workers would probably increase the crime rate, which is currently very low.
• Loss of control The Himba people fear the loss of their lands to outsiders.
• Loss of eco-tourism potential Without the dam, Epupa could be a major attraction for tourists, which would benefit the local community.

Feasibility study

To dispel the controversy over the project, a full feasibility study was commissioned by the government for the Epupa Dam project. This US$7million study was awarded in 1995 to NAMANG, a consortium composed of Norconsult (from Norway), Swedpower (Sweden), Saopro (Angola) and Burmeister van Niekerk (Namibia). The pre-feasibility study, completed in 1993, was drafted by almost the same team.

Even before the study was published, Namibian government officials were on record as saying that the decision on the project had already been taken. Nobody was surprised when, at the start of 1998, the official report backed the dam, claiming that its few negative impacts would be greatly outweighed by the positive ones.

However, a panel of seven international experts swiftly discredited this feasibility report. These included internationally renowned specialists in ecology, water-management, economics, alternative energy and Namibian law. They scrutinised it at the request of several non-governmental organisations, including the California-based International Rivers Network. These independent experts concluded that the report was 'riddled with incorrect conclusions, false assumptions and missing data so that it cannot be used as a basis for a well-informed decision on the project'.

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