Zambia Drained World's Biggest Dam Behind Crisis, Scott Says

  • Zambia, Zimbabwe draining Kariba like `puppies drinking milk'
  • Running dam's expansion plant non-stop made problem worse
Flood gates on the Kariba Dam between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Flood gates on the Kariba Dam between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Photographer: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Zambia’s overuse of the world’s biggest man-made reservoir to generate electricity has depleted its water levels, according to Guy Scott, a former vice president who led the country for three months until January this year. His comments contradict government assertions that drought is to blame for the country’s worst-ever power crisis.

Lake Kariba straddles Zambia’s border with Zimbabwe, generating hydropower for both southern African countries. Poor oversight has allowed both nations to compete in over-exploiting this source of electricity, Scott said, driving water levels down to 29 percent of capacity this month from 70 percent a year ago.

“What we have now is a weak regulator sitting between two puppies drinking milk from the same saucer,” Scott, who is still a member of parliament, told lawmakers in the capital, Lusaka, according to a transcript posted on Parliament’s website Wednesday. “If one does not lick fast enough, it will not get as much as the other one.”

MAP: Lake Kariba, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe
MAP: Lake Kariba, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe

Kariba’s low water levels have compelled both countries to cut electricity generation and have led to rotating power cuts that last as long as 14 hours a day. Zambia’s energy shortage has also led to mine suspensions in Africa’s second-largest producer of copper and thousands of planned job cuts. It’s also contributed to this year’s 47 percent depreciation of the kwacha, the world’s worst-performing currency, against the dollar.

The power crisis, along with low copper prices, will cause Zambia’s GDP growth to slow to 3.4 percent this year from government’s initial target of more than 7 percent, according to Barclays Plc. That would be the most sluggish pace since 1998, when the economy contracted.

The government is trying to shield mines from the electricity shortage as copper accounts for 70 percent of exports, Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda said last month. While operators have been asked to cut their power use by 30 percent, most mines are able to continue normal production through more efficient use and buying imported power, according to Copperbelt Energy Corp., their biggest supplier.

Zambia aggravated the situation at Kariba by continuously running a 360-megawatt hydropower expansion, designed only to operate for 3 1/2 hours a day during peak demand, said Scott, who became acting President when Michael Sata died in October. Scott officially opened the plant, which increased generating capacity on the Zambian side of the dam by 50 percent, in August last year.

“I am the one who turned it on and I said, ‘Is there enough water for this?’ It was a huge contraption and everybody said ‘yes,’” he told lawmakers Sept. 23. “When I went to sleep at the hotel down from the Kariba Dam, all night and morning the water gushed past. Once they had their toy, they pushed the button, turned it on and left it, and down went the water.”

Meager water levels at Kariba and at the Kafue Gorge power station, which account for almost 90 percent of the country’s generation capacity, mean Zambia could only supply an average of half of normal peak power demand in September, Mines and Energy Minister Christopher Yaluma said this month. Total installed generation capacity from all power plants is 2,300 megawatts, according to Zesco, the state-owned power supplier.

‘Sharing Difficult’

While data from Zesco show that water inflows from the Zambezi river were lower than previous years, the company has also used more water than it is allocated, figures in a Sept. 5 statement from the utility indicate.

The Zambezi River Authority, which regulates Kariba and is run by the two countries’ governments, allocated Zesco water to generate 1,944 gigawatt hours of electricity from April through September, according to the statement. Instead, it produced 2,971 gigawatt hours, 46 percent more than it was supposed to.

Zambia uses hydroelectricity for more than 95 percent of its power needs. Kariba North Bank power station had fewer than 70 days from Sept. 5 before it exhausted its water allocation, Zesco said in a statement that day.

Zambia’s power shortages and the effects of climate change are “inextricably inseparable,” President Edgar Lungu, who won the January elections to replace Sata, said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday.

Munyaradzi Munodawafa, chief executive officer of the Zambezi River Authority, didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment, and a Zesco spokesman wasn’t immediately able to comment when contacted by mobile phone.

“It is very difficult to share hydroelectric facilities with other countries,” Scott said. “It is a well-known problem throughout the world and I think it needs to be addressed.”

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