Kariba Dam Water Levels Increase for First Time in 9 Months

  • Complete shutdown of hydropower station may be avoided
  • Tata Power commissions new 120 megawatt hydropower plant

Water levels at the Kariba dam that straddles Zambia and Zimbabwe rose for the first time in nine months, data from the authority that regulates the world’s biggest man-made reservoir show.

Levels increased by 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) during the week ended Feb. 1, the Zambezi River Authority said in a statement posted to its website Wednesday. That’s the first weekly gain since at least April. The dam rose to 12 percent of capacity, after dipping to 11 percent on Jan. 27, as inflows from the Zambezi river that feeds it increased and rains fell in the area, it said.

Map: The Kariba dam straddles the Zambia-Zimbabwe border
Map: The Kariba dam straddles the Zambia-Zimbabwe border

The rising waters could enable the Zambian government to avert a total shutdown of the hydropower plant at Kariba. Rains, while erratic, have started and the Zambezi’s water flows are rising. At the same time, the government has reduced power generation at the dam to about a quarter of capacity, helping to stem the decline. Power users including the mines in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer typically depend on the reservoir for almost half of their supplies.

“It is unlikely that Kariba will be shut off as measures have been taken to decrease production from the plant and the rate of reservoir depletion has slowed as rains, though poor, increase river flow,” Clare Allenson, a Washington-based analyst at Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed note on Jan. 28.

Allocation Cut

The Zambezi River Authority cut Zambia’s water allocation at the reservoir by half this year, which will allow it to generate an average 275 megawatts, from 700 megawatts in 2015, the government’s Disaster Mitigation and Management Unit said Jan. 26.

The river continued to rise at the Chavuma measuring station, which is the furthest upstream from the dam, and was 43 percent higher on Feb. 1 than a year earlier, according to the authority. At Victoria Falls, flows increased more slowly and were 19 percent lower than the same time in 2015.

Tata Power Corp. said Thursday it started generating power at the 120 megawatt Itezhi Tezhi hydropower plant it owns jointly with Zesco Ltd., Zambia’s state-owned electricity supplier. Because of low water levels, this plant will probably produce less than half of its capacity this year, Allenson said.

While Kariba’s rising water levels and the start of generation at Itezhi Tezhi are positive news, “Zambia is by no means out of the woods,” Ronak Gopaldas, country risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank Ltd., said by phone from Johannesburg.

‘Little Glimmer’

“At the moment we’re definitely in a crisis, but it just provides a bit of buffer,” he said. “After more than six to 12 months of consistently negative news on the economy, this is a little glimmer of hope.”

The World Bank forecast in December the power deficit would linger at least until 2018 and possibly up to 2020. A 300 megawatt coal-fired plant in the south of the country probably won’t start supplying power to the grid until at least August, according to Eurasia’s Allenson.

Zambia has capacity to produce about 2,300 megawatts of power when its plants are fully operational, but low water levels have cut output at the hydropower dams it relies on for over 95 percent of generation. Energy Minister Dora Siliya said the deficit would reach 1,000 megawatts by Dec. 2015.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE