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Foundation stone laid for hydroelectric dam in Tanzania

Clarissa Herrmann with dpa
July 26, 2019

President John Magufuli defended the construction of the dam in Stiegler Gorge. Critics fear it could herald the end of the Selous Game Reserve which is home to a wealth of flora and fauna.

Selous reserve in Tanzania
Image: WWF Deutschland/Michael Poliza

At a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the construction of a hydroelectric plant at Stiegler Gorge, in the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania's president John Magufuli defended the project and insisted he was serious about conservation. Construction work on the plant on the Rufiji River is being carried out by two Egyptian companies at an estimated initial cost of almost 4 billion dollars (€3.6 billion). For the government of the East African nation, the project marks a decisive step in the process of improving the electricity supply countrywide. With an output of 2.1 gigawatts, the power plant should more than double Tanzania's current energy production.

 Magufuli said the project would benefit conservation because more access to electricity meant less tree felling for charcoal, which many Tanzanians depend on for cooking.

The project has been widely criticized as it involves large-scale destruction of the game reserve which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some experts doubt whether building the dam actually makes sense, not least because people living in remote areas often lack a connection to the electricity grid. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), only 10% of the population in rural areas have access. Johannes Kirchgatter of the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) does not believe energy supply problems can be solved by building a mega dam above the Stiegler Gorge. In an interview with DW, he said this had not been part of the original energy program. On the contrary, there had been talk of the need to diversify in order to guarantee the supply of energy. Kirchgatter says this is vital "as Tanzania is already dependent to a large degree on the water of the Rufiji River." Power plants already exist upstream. As a result of climate change, droughts now occur more frequently in this region, Kirchgatter said, and it would not be wise to rely on the water of a single river.

An elephant approaches a lioness on the edge of a watering hole
A surprise encounter at the Selous Game ReserveImage: Getty Images/Barcroft Media/M. Sheridan-Johnson

Success questionable

Someone else who thinks that a mega project of this kind will not be able to solve Tanzania's electricity supply problems is German politician Christoph Hoffmann, development spokesman of the FDP parliamentary group in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Hoffmann says Tanzania does not have enough water pipes or grid connections, which means that if more electricity were to be produced, it could not be transported to the regions where it is needed. One can only speculate about the dam's economic success, Hoffmann told DW, but it is a fact that vast areas of forest have been destroyed ahead of construction. Against the background of the global climate crisis, there can be no justification for allowing so many trees to be felled " which could have stored carbon dioxide," he said.

During a Bundestag debate in January this year, Hoffmann's Liberal Free Democrats argued for development aid for Tanzania to be linked to the country abandoning construction of the dam. This was widely criticized by other parties. The debate ended with the approval of a proposal made by the conservative CDU/CSU parties together with the Social Democrats (SPD), calling on both the German and Tanzanian governments to look for alternatives to the mega project which would not endanger the status of the game reserve.

The FDP proposal was rejected by the Greens who said it amounted to dictating to the Tanzanian government what it should do. A separate proposal, to use gas turbines as an interim solution, was also turned down, with several parliamentarians saying that would open the door for another 50 years of fossil fuel burning. 

Hoffmann regrets the outcome. He says his party's suggestion would have allowed Tanzania's president John Magafuli to save face while securing the country's power supply. Time would also have been won to build a decentralized, sustainable source of power. Hoffmann points out that the Bundestag had agreed to provide financial support for the Selous Game Reserve. Therefore, he says, if Tanzania were to destroy the reserve, the consequence should be that the financial aid would be stopped. "Otherwise the government would not be credible in the eyes of its own taxpayers. You can't support something that is then destroyed."

Infographic showing the planned flooding area in the Selous reserve as well as areas where authorized mining, oil and gas extraction are taking place

Africa's largest game reserve

"The Tanzanian government thinks it can generate a certain pressure to act by creating a fait accompli," the WWF's Kirchgatter told DW. If the region is removed from the UNESCO list, it may be possible to attract additional investors since the argument that a world heritage site was being destroyed would no longer be relevant. 

The Selous Game Reserve is considered to be Africa's largest. It covers more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,305 square miles). Its rich flora and fauna secured it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1982. It is home to hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, rare African wild dogs and more than 400 bird species. Five years ago it moved on to the red list of endangered culture sites as the numbers of animals were falling as a result of organized poaching. The hydropower plant could result in Selous being struck off the list altogether. 

Potentially devastating consequences

To build the dam, the future flooding area must be freed of all vegetation. That's an area that far exceeds 1,000 square kilometers. The consequences would be devastating, Kirchgatter says. Along with the dam, roads and settlements would also be created in the reserve area and the whole region would become industrialized. Outside the reserve, downstream, the consequences would also be dramatic. There would be no more flooding as in the past to supply the mangrove swamps in the river delta with sweet water and protect the coast. Fishermen in the delta could suffer if it dried out.

Martina Schwikowski contributed to this article.

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