By Sophie Westbrook, ’19

The Zambezi River sweeps across south-central Africa, beginning in a humble Zambian marsh and ending 2,200 miles later at the Indian Ocean [1]. In between, the river varies widely: slow, placid stretches alternate with stunning features like Victoria Falls. The system drains over 500,000 acres in Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Its condition therefore helps determine the well being of billions of animals – and millions of people.

To many decision-makers, “Zambezi Basin” is synonymous with “development.” That’s because most of the region’s postcolonial governments are pushing hard to move their economies away from subsistence agriculture. To coordinate their efforts, they (except for Zambia) have formed the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM) [2]. The World Bank has pledged to help with “institutional strengthening, improved information sharing and decision support and strategic planning,” not to mention some sizeable grants [3]. Of course, any development effort on this scale is going to change the way people interact with water. The effects are going to be unusually dramatic here, though: both ZAMCOM and the World Bank are convinced that the area’s future lies in hydropower.

Most of the Zambezi Basin’s residents already view the river as an economic resource. It is used to irrigate about 260,000 hectares (642,000 acres) annually, if one counts double-cropped fields twice [4]. Since the basin is about 75% rural, many people are used to making water work for them this way. Further, they are already comfortable with hydropower because they’re generating almost 5,000 MW through twelve projects in four countries [4]. Some of the power satisfies urban demand, while much is diverted to a lucrative South African market. It’s a powerful economic force in both capacities.

That said, there is a real chance that the proposed expansions would be too much of a good thing. The World Bank’s long-term goal is to double the region’s energy generation through 53 hydropower projects [4].  Unfortunately, subsidizing these projects cannot erase their drawbacks: even the best outcomes displace people and diminish biodiversity, soil fertility, and water availability. That’s not to say that we should abandon them. Sustainable development gurus, who do not agree on much, all warn against waiting for a “magic bullet” energy solution. However, they usually argue for a diverse portfolio of strategies. ZAMCOM and the World Bank are instead opting to put most of their eggs in a single basket. Hydropower’s promise and public support should definitely be capitalized on, but it might be worth remembering that dams – unlike eggs – are seldom cheaper by the dozen.


[1] “Zambezi River”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2016

[2] Tilmant, A., et al. “Economic valuation of benefits and costs associated with the coordinated development and management of the Zambezi river basin.” Water Policy 14.3 (2012): 490-508.

[3] “Zambezi River Basin Management Project.” Projects and Operations. The World Bank, 6 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

[4] World Bank Water Resources Management. The Zambezi River Basin: A Multi-Sector Investment Opportunities Analysis. Rep. no. 58404. The World Bank, June 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

This article is the third in a column called “Water, Water Everywhere”. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Sophie Westbrook’s posts.