Collaborative Management of the Zambezi River Basin Ensures Greater Economic Resilience

September 10, 2015


The Zambezi River provides opportunities for subsistence agriculture and fisheries for millions of people living around the river basin. 

Arne Hoel/World Bank Group

  • The Zambezi River is central to enhancing economic opportunities and securing sustainable livelihoods for more than 250 million people in Southern Africa
  • Improved collaboration on water resource management could have substantial benefits for regional energy security, agricultural production, and job creation
  • The Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) multi-donor trust fund at the World Bank is supporting commitments among riparian states to advance long-term cooperation and generate significant benefits

WASHINGTON, September 10, 2015 – The Zambezi River is one of the most valuable natural resources in Africa. Accounting for half of the installed hydropower capacity in Southern Africa, it plays a vital role in stimulating economic opportunities for 250 million people in the region. Subsistence agriculture and fisheries on the river also provide for three quarters of the Zambezi River Basin’s 47 million people.

Given increasing development pressures on the basin’s resources and the impacts of climate change, the need to ensure sustainable management of the river’s waters is more critical than ever. Acknowledging the importance of the basin for energy and food security, the eight riparian countries – Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – have advanced cooperative development for many years.

The eight riparian states enacted the “Agreement on the Establishment of the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM)” in 2011. This introduced a framework for promoting the equitable utilization, efficient management, and sustainable development of the Zambezi River Basin. Realizing this vision requires a combination of strong institutions to drive this process, information sharing to inform decision making, and infrastructure investments to provide for people’s basic needs and boost economic growth.

The World Bank’s Zambezi River Basin Program is designed to respond to Southern Africa’s development needs. Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) helps bring together the various commitments within a World Bank-financed $2 billion portfolio to facilitate dialogue between riparian states and further drive the development of water resources for sustainable growth. As part of this program, a long-term engagement with ZAMCOM and the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) is empowering regional bodies with the institutional mechanisms and information platforms to better manage shared water resources and advance high-priority infrastructure investments.


The engagement with ZAMCOM has already helped establish a permanent ZAMCOM Secretariat following the 2011 agreement. The program will also help revitalize the functionality of the Zambezi Water Information Management System (ZAMWIS) to improve information sharing on key aspects of the basin. Direct financial support to regional bodies and the riparian states is complemented by strategic analytical work, including a political economy assessment.

Advancing the Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme to Help Improve Energy Security

The program also includes financing for ZRA, a bi-national entity owned by Zambia and Zimbabwe, to advance preparation of the Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme (HES). Original development of this HES was delayed by 10 years due to an impasse between the two states over an outstanding, colonial-era debt. CIWA was central to facilitating the resolution of this deadlock, analyzing the foregone benefits associated with delayed implementation. The missed opportunity amounted to an estimated $7 billion in foregone electricity sales and an overall economic loss of over $45 billion.

Current efforts focus on mobilizing the technical and operational resources needed to advance the development of the Batoka Gorge HES. This includes updating engineering studies, undertaking a new environmental and social impact assessment, and conducting legal and institutional reviews of ZRA.

Improved Cooperation Leads to Significant Benefits

The gains of a basin-wide program can tremendously bolster energy security, agricultural production and job creation. Research shows that coordinated operation of the existing hydropower facilities in the Zambezi River Basin can increase energy production by 23% without any additional investment. Improved cooperation within the basin can also enhance economic resilience to climate variability by reducing the risks associated with floods which generate estimated losses of over $1 billion per year. In addition, improved information sharing through ZAMWIS will inform a master plan to guide more than $16 billion of investments in national projects. This, in turn, will have the potential to double the area under irrigation and provide more than 500,000 new jobs.

In terms of infrastructure development, the Batoka Gorge HES will ultimately secure the energy needs of more than 1.2 million households equally split between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Conjunctive operation of the Batoka Gorge HES with the existing Kariba Dam will also increase the overall energy production by 8,962 GWh per year.

“Through the Zambezi River Basin Program, eight countries are provided with great incentives and resources to work together to better manage shared waters and invest in critical infrastructure. This collaborative engagement will generate far greater benefits to local communities than what could have possibly been accomplished at the individual country level,” states Marcus Wishart, Senior Water Resource Specialist at the World Bank and task team leader for the projects.