UNESCO okays US, Chinese $5bn energy project on world heritage site

Business Review

An agency of the United Nations has cleared Zambia and Zimbabwe to build a $5 billion hydropower dam downstream from Victoria Falls, a Unesco World Heritage Site, according to the Zambezi River Authority that came under fire for the project.

United States’ General Electric and Power Construction Corp. of China are set to build  2,400 megawatt Batoka Gorge hydro project, but environmentalists had raised concern over the impact it would have on Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, a key tourist site for Zimbabwe and Zambia.

However, Bloomberg quotes an official from the authority claiming that Unesco “sent inspectors in 2022 after complaints by some environmentalists that the Batoka project was going to affect the Victoria Falls”.

Munyaradzi Munodawafa, chief executive officer of the Zambezi River Authority, said in an interview with the publication that Unesco “looked at the reports and our presentations and agreed that Batoka could go ahead” at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee in September.

Construction of the 181-meter (594-foot) high wall and power plants by a group led by General Electric Co., and China’s Power Construction Corp. had been expected to start in 2020 but was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and funding concerns.

Both Zambia and Zimbabwe, who already share the Kariba hydropower facility further east on the Zambezi, at times have struggled to meet their power needs.

  “Now we are good to go” said Munodawafa. “We are on solid ground and by end of next month, I will have an actual date of commencement.”

Unesco didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The African Development Bank is the lead arranger for the financing of Batoka, which has been designed as a run-of-river project, meaning that there will be little storage of water behind the turbines, minimizing the impact on the Victoria Falls.

According to Bloomberg, atill, there are tensions over the project between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

  In June Peter Kapala, Zambia’s energy minister, said his country plans to exit the agreement with GE and Power Construction because it was too expensive and a smaller plant could be more appropriate.

Munodawafa also said the $130 million rehabilitation of a plunge pool below the wall of the Kariba dam, which holds back the world’s biggest artificial reservoir, is expected to be completed by early 2025. Further downstream, in Mozambique, the AfDB is also advising on the $4.5 billion, 1,500-megawatt Mphanda Nkuwa hydropower project. 

According to the authority, the proposed Batoka Hydro-electric Scheme (HES) was conceived in 1972 by the then Central African Power Corporation as a possible power source which the intergovernmental institution could develop to meet the power demands of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In recent years, owing to climate change and rising demand, the two countries have failed to meet their energy needs and recurrent droughts have exacerbated the situation, as water levels plummet.

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