Harnessing the Zambezi River for Sustainable Development

December 8, 2010

  • The Zambezi River flows through eight countries and reaches 30 million people
  • A World Bank report outlines development scenarios for hydropower and irrigation in the Zambezi River Basin
  • Growth-oriented investment programs in the basin have the potential to reduce poverty in the region

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2010 -- A new World Bank report on the Zambezi River provides a launch platform for the eight countries of the river basin to consider national and regional multi-sectoral investment policies that will harness the potential of one of Africa’s most diverse and resource-rich rivers to raise standards of living in the southern part of the continent.

Entitled The Zambezi River Basin: a Multi-Sector Investment Opportunities Analysis, the work examines development scenarios for growth-oriented investments in hydropower and irrigation in the Zambezi River Basin while fully taking into account water supply and sanitation, flood management, the environment, tourism, and wetlands.

As the fourth-longest river in Africa, the Zambezi helps meet the basic needs for some 30 million inhabitants of the continent, sustains a rich and diverse ecosystem, and plays a central role in the economies of the eight countries through which it flows: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, in the past 30 years few improvements have been made in how the river’s resources are managed. Geographical, political and historical differences among nations have lead to primarily unilateral policies often at odds with one another rather than a comprehensive and holistic regional approach to managing the river.

“The Zambezi River remains a largely untapped resource for poverty reduction in Africa,” said Vahid Alavian, a World Bank water and hydropower advisor for the Africa region who served as one of the report’s lead authors. “This analysis provides window into the river’s potential as a regional resource and sets forth a foundation for how the eight countries within the Zambezi River Basin can strategically work together to achieve short- and long-term development outcomes.”

The report presents the following key findings:

  • The Zambezi River Basin presents ample opportunities for sustainable, cooperative investment.
  • With improved cooperation and coordination, the Basin’s existing hydropower facilities could increase the regions output of firm electricity by seven percent, adding $585 million in value over 30 years, with no major infrastructure investment.
  • The Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) plan to expand generation capacity in the region, which requires investment of $10.7 billion over 15 years, is adequate to meet most of the region’s projected demand for electricity and replace other non-renewable sources of energy.
  • Effective transnational coordination of planned hydropower plants operation and dispatching could potentially increase the supply of firm electricity in the region by as much as 23 percent.
  • Although implementation of all current national irrigation projects would expand access to irrigated land by 184 percent, it would also reduce the region’s capacity to produce electricity by 21 percent if no new generation capacity were brought online.
  • If the proposed national irrigation projects were implemented alongside the current SAPP plans to expand generation, the region’s capacity for uninterruptable electricity would fall by about eight percent.
  • A more detailed study of how climate change and non-irrigation water use might affect sectors other than hydropower.

Although it may be better to restore natural flooding and provide improved flood protection by modifying reservoir operating guidelines at Cahora Bassa Dam, further study of how this would impact hydropower production is needed. The analysis finds that a balanced, growth-focused investment program for the basin could reasonably include 30,000 gigawatt hours in annual hydropower generation, about 774,000 hectares of irrigated land, and a cost-effective flood mitigation and artificial flooding program in the Lower Zambezi.