Tanzania has decided to go ahead with a controversial megaproject that promises to increase the nation’s generating capacity by 150%, but which also threatens wildlife in a vast Unesco heritage site.
The 2.1GW Stieglers Gorge hydroelectric project would dam the River Rufiji as it flows through the Selous nature reserve, about 60km southwest of Dar es Salaam.
The plan was formulated in the 1980s but Tanzania has never had the capital to put it into effect. The decision to go ahead now follows a visit from Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in March and the offer of technical assistance from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has become Africa’s leading authority on transformative hydropower schemes after undertaking ambitious projects like the 6GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is presently nearing completion. Ethiopia has agreed to send a group of expert advisers to help Tanzania set up the scheme.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli opened the Dar es Salaam International Trade Fair on 3 July with an assurance that the decision to go ahead was irreversible.
"Come rain, come sun, Stieglers Gorge hydroelectric dam must be constructed," he said. "We are not going to listen to people who speak about impacts on environment without facts on the grounds."
He added that a feasibility study has been completed and work was under way to choose a contractor to build the dam.
Magufuli, whose nickname is "the bulldozer", was elected partly on his record of forcing through infrastructure schemes.
Opposition to Stieglers Gorge has been based on its impact on the Selous game reserve, which covers an area the size of Denmark. The reserve has already had its elephant population reduced to 10% of what it was in the 1970s owing to "industrial-scale poaching". It is also home to the critically endangered black rhinoceros.
Magufuli said claims of irreversible damage to the reserve were groundless since the project would cover 1,350 sq km, equivalent to 3% of the total 45,000 sq km of the reserve’s land area.
Image: The Selous game reserve covers an area the size of Denmark (WWF)