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Kariba Dam, Zambia/Zimbabwe

The Kariba dam leaves the descendents of the 57,000 Tonga people which were resettled with force still impoverished nowadays, after 60 years from its construction.


After spending 60 years studying the Gwembe Valley, the expert on dams Thayer Scudder (2005) concludes that overall the Kariba dam brought "unacceptable environmental and social impacts[1]. The main victims, the 57,000 Tonga people which were resettled with force and are still nowadays left impoverished. "Intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism, astronomical unemployment, […] illegal drug cultivation, smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution" [2] are among the symptoms of the social troubles that those communities, once self-sufficient, are experimenting today as an outcome of what at the time of construction was the dam financed by the largest loan that the World Bank had given up until that time. Apart from the serious environmental degradation brought by the interruption of the natural river flow, Scudder individuates also others factors of such negative outcomes: "inadequate institutional capacity, inadequate opportunities, adverse rural-urban terms of trade, the war for Zimbabwe's independence and the bankruptcy of the political economy of Zambia". The planning started in 1946 by British colonisers, and its initial purpose was to provide electricity to the regional copper industry and urban industrial centres in what at that time was called Rhodesia. Construction began in 1956 and the reservoir reached full storage capacity in 1963. Before the villages were flooded, little information was given to the affected communities, whose villages were burned by colonial authorities and destroyed by means of trucks. Some resisted resettlement but were defeated by in a short battle know as the Chisamu War [3].  As today, villagers still lack electricity. Moreover, the dam is at risk of failure [4] [5] [6], due to structural issues. Apparently, engineers from the Zambezi River Authority revealed that the plunge pool below the dam - i.e. the area where the water is released after passing through the dam's spillways - has deepened excessively, compromising the stability of the structure's foundation.  

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Kariba Dam, Zambia/Zimbabwe
State or province:Mashonaland West Province
Location of conflict:Kariba
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Water access rights and entitlements
Mineral ore exploration
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Kariba plant consists of a double-arch concrete dam with spillway and underground works comprising penstocks, powerhouse, transformer hall, surge chambers, tailrace tunnels and service shafts. The dam is a double arch type, 128 m high, 620 m long and 14 m thick at the crest. Its construction required 975,000 m3 of concrete. The dam forms a 185,000 million m3 reservoir, its surface covering about 500 hectares at maximum water level. The artificial reservoir capacity, formed upstream, measures 300 km in length with a maximum width of 30 km and occupies a surface area that is four and a half times greater than the largest one in existence at the time. The underground powerhouse on the right bank houses six units, each with a power generating capacity of 100,000 kW. [7]

Project area:66,300,000
Level of Investment:80,000,000 (in 1955)
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:57,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1956
Company names or state enterprises:Salini Impregilo from Italy - Construction company
Federal Power Board of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Relevant government actors:British Empire
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:International Rivers
The Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA)
Thayer Scudder, Emeritus Professor at the California Institute of Technology
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Tonga communities
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Soil contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
Development of alternatives:According to the dam expert Thayer Scudder, "...a careful consideration of alternatives might well have favoured the hydro-electric option under Central African conditions, at the time a tributary dam in the Kafue Gorge would have met Copperbelt and Southern Rhodesian needs with much reduced environmental and social costs. Consideration of a wider range of options thereafter may or not have led to a mainstream dam". He believes that it should have been a multipurpose dam, and that "Kariba’s construction precluded the implementation of a major rural development initiative that might have had a major impact on improving the living standards of the currently impoverished population" [1]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Social, environmental and economic costs overweight over any accumulated benefit from the dam [1]
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Scudder, T. (2005) The Kariba case study. CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

The Institute of Risk Management South Africa

Risk Research Report

Impact of the failure of the Kariba Dam
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[7] Salini Impregilo (2016) Kariba Hydroelectric Plant . Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[2] Leslie, J. (2014) Large Dams Just Aren't Worth the Cost. The New York Times. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[5] International rivers, 2009. Kariba Dam Safety Concerns. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[1] Scudder, T. (2005) The Kariba case study. CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[6] Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA), 2015. Impact of the failure of the Kariba dam.

Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[3] International Rivers, Kariba Dam, Zambia / Zimbabwe. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

[4] Sanyanga, R. (2012) Concerns About Kariba Dam's Stability. International rivers. Accessed: 14/04/17
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Kariba dam in a dangerous state. Nico Bianco, Executive: AON South Africa and Kay Darbourn, Researches & Founding Member: IRMSA on the Kariba Dam Report and the possibility of a collapse of the dam - 10 September 2015
[click to view]

Rudo Sanyanga, International Rivers, 2013. The Tonga, the Kariba Dam, and the Angry God
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:AB - ICTA
Last update29/04/2017
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