Monday, 31 March 2014

Dams, flooding and displacement: the Tokwe Mukorsi dam

Image: Satellite-detected water bodies at the
Tokwe Mukorsi Dam (source:
Reliefweb [pdf])
Zimbabwe's heavy rainfall this season has had its costs. The most dramatic has been the major flooding in Masvingo as the long awaited Tokwe Mukorsi dam filled more rapidly than expected. Rather than filling gradually over four years, with a phased process of relocation of people, it did so over a matter of weeks. There were threats to the dam wall, and a fear a major catastrophe might result.

Dramatic satellite images of the extent of flooding have been shared, and SABC broadcast a short news item on the unfolding drama, showing images of the floods, and the damage caused. The flooding has resulted in over 4500 people having to be evacuated at short notice, and shifted to a number of holding camps in the lowveld.

It has been declared a national emergency, and considerable resources have been deployed in response. Funds from the US as well as China have been offered, and whole fleets of CMED vehicles have been commandeered to move people. Emergency camps have been established, and feeding programmes instituted.

In December, while visiting our research study site along the Ngundu-Chiredzi road, the first phase of relocation was on-going, and we witnessed a string of trucks, tractors and trailors carrying people and their possessions heading to Nuanetsi ranch. They had left their ancestral lands, their homes, fields and grave sites, with the promise of compensation, new homes and access irrigated land and the water that was to cover where they once lived. But in February, as the scale of the massive rainfall and rapid filling of the dam became apparent, this turned from an orderly, planned move, to an emergency.

The Tokwe Mukorsi dam has been long in the planning. From the 1980s it was part of a strategic development of lowveld water resources, essentially to guarantee supply of water to the sugar and citrus estates. It was always political, wrapped up in national and local lowveld wrangles. Funding though has always been a challenge. The project has been on and off for decades. But in recent years, it has moved ahead, and Italian engineers and local companies have been involved. However, the engineers’ plans had discounted a once in 30 year rainfall event and had projected the gradual filling of the dam on the basis of more common rainfall patterns. This risk assessment of course proved incorrect, prompting the current disaster.

To the credit of the authorities, the response has been swift and losses have been minimised. No-one, as far as I can tell, has lost their life directly as a result. Dislocation and misery has resulted, and the make-shift arrangements at the holding camps have been reportedly appalling. But, everyone agrees, it could have been much, much worse.

This event has raised some bigger issues. We must ask, what is the role of such big infrastructure projects in development? Who gains and who loses? And how should displacement, compensation and relocation be managed when wider development priorities trump local concerns or resistance?
These are dilemmas being faced the world over. There is a wide obsession with the big, prestige project. Nehru proclaimed that ‘dams are the temples of modern India’. The Three Gorges dam in China has become a symbol of Chinese modernity. And in Ethiopia, the controversial Ghibe dam was a pet project of the late prime minister, Meles Zenawi. In the Rhodesian era, of course Kariba represented such a vision. And in recent decades, Tokwe Mukorsi has been associated with a similar rhetoric.

In the late 1990s, the World Commission on Dams made the case building on mountains of evidence that very often large scale is not best. A more diverse approach to water management, involving a variety of approaches to capturing, storing and distributing water is more appropriate. This advice however has been rarely heeded. The big project brings money, patronage, backhanders and more. And big projects can be seen as prestige legacies of particular people and politicians. Engineering development has its appeal: one solution, rather than many; and a technical one that needs a particular type of expertise. Yet the argument about big dams continues to rage. A paper out this month by Antif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg and colleagues suggests they are mostly economically unviable, bring massive costs of displacement and again a more diverse set of options is preferable. Not a new argument at all, but stated forcefully with recent numbers.

The Oxford study focuses on mega-large hydropower dams which Tokwe Mukorsi is not, but many of the same issues apply. There was repeated and systematic underestimation of costs, and as the flooding has shown the risk assessments have been found wanting. Tokwe Mukorsi was intended to benefit the large-scale sugar estates in the lowveld, not the local community. Resettlement was of course part of the plan, with a view that those displaced would become outgrowers in new sugar plantations. But will these offers be upheld, and what are the other more intangible losses suffered through displacement? Will those in Chivi who remain behind benefit from the new water? Or will it be ‘protected’ as part of ‘watershed management’, so upstream users lose out to the more powerful downstream? A game park has been mooted for the area, but who will benefit from this, as this takes up the banks of the new lake area?

When the immediate challenges of dealing with the flooding and its consequences pass, these are the bigger questions that will have to be dealt with. The minister of state for Masvingo, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, has asked for new ideas on how to make use of the development potential of this new water. This is a welcome move, as past projects – whether Kyle/Mtirikwi or Kariba – have excluded local people from this conversation. Maybe the new Tokwe Mukorsi water can be used to benefit local development through small-scale irrigation, as well as profiting the estates in the lowveld.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland