Tanzanian World Heritage wilderness doomed by dam project
Autocratic president's mega-plan could bankrupt the country and forever change Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary
It is arguably the British Empire’s greatest legacy to conservation, the outrageous vision of an English poacher-turned-naturalist whose misanthropic cussedness would shape Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary.
Stretching across a swathe of woodland savannah four-fifths the size of Ireland, the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania is among the world’s biggest protected wildernesses, home, until Africa’s latest poaching frenzy, to one of the largest elephant concentrations on the continent.
For much of its 123-year history the Selous has been coveted by those who saw in its vastness the possibility of equally vast wealth. But until 2019 the profit seekers had been held back. That is about to change, with work beginning on a development that will forever change the landscape.
For decades, tourist and hunting lodges aside, the only permanent structures in the reserve were two tombstones. One marked the grave of Sir Frederick Selous, the imperial adventurer after whom the reserve is named, the other that of Constantine Ionides, a snake-collecting English eccentric who made it what it is today.
But now, in a 100m-deep canyon along the River Rufiji, construction is under way – with the undeclared assistance of China – on one of the world’s largest dams, the first built in a World Heritage site.Conservationists see it as a catastrophe, with Unesco’s World Heritage Committee warning of “a high likelihood of serious and irreversible damage”.For them, it is more than a mere eyesore. The dam will upend the reserve’s fragile ecosystem, reduce the habitat of its wildlife and embolden further human encroachment.Worried Western donors have lobbied to halt the development, arguing that the dam may never work and could even bankrupt the country.
“It is a colossal white elephant, ruinous in every way,” an economist based in Tanzania says. “It is hard to think of a project more ill-conceived.”
Such criticisms are voiced quietly. John Magufuli, Tanzania’s president, brooks little criticism. Since he came to power in 2015, more than a third of opposition MPs have been arrested. One survived being shot 16 times in 2017.
“The government will go on with the implementation of the project whether you like it or not,” Kangi Lugola, Tanzania’s environment minister, told parliament in 2018. “Those who resist will be jailed.”
For the president, the ends justify the means. The Stiegler’s Gorge Dam would more than double the electricity Tanzania generates, bringing power to the two-thirds of his people without it and helping the country industrialise. For his critics, however, the dam is just another vanity project, a vehicle for corrupt officials to pocket cash.
A forecast completion date of 2021 will probably overrun by six years, experts reckon; costs could spiral to R143bn, treble its present budget.
Electricity generation projections are wildly optimistic, according to Zitto Kabwe, an economist and opposition MP: “The river has lost 25% of its capacity in the past 25 years due to climate change and irrigation. It is not possible to produce the electricity talked about.”
The funding, too, is murky. Magufuli insists Tanzania can pay for the dam itself and that funds will not be sought from China. However, registration logs show large numbers of employees from two state-owned Chinese companies, SinoHydro and Power China, daily visiting the construction site.
Already, the Selous has been radically altered. Loggers have begun clearing threatened Miombo woodland the size of Johannesburg for the dam’s reservoir. Quarries have been gouged out and bridges laid.
It is only the start. Once completed, the Rufiji sandbanks where hippos and crocodiles bask will be submerged and oxbow lakes disappear. Downstream, the delta will shrink, threatening east Africa’s largest endangered mangrove forest.
Ionides’s vision of an untouched wilderness is unravelling. The “Father of the Selous” did not create the reserve, which was founded by Tanganyika’s German governor in 1896. But, as game warden after Britain took over after World War 1, he increased its boundaries 20-fold.The wildlife regeneration he oversaw was remarkable. Half a century earlier, a Scottish explorer crossing the region saw not a single elephant: all had been poached. By Tanzania’s independence in 1961 there were 150,000 in the reserve Ionides named after his hero, Selous, who was killed in action there in 1917.
The grave of Selous, who inspired Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, lies in an area that encapsulates the spirit of Africa as it once was. That spirit looks increasingly doomed.
Part of the reserve has already been hived off by a Russian uranium miner. With copper, silver and gold also in the ground, other vultures of business are circling.
And each human encroachment will almost inevitably bring more poachers. With just 15,000 elephants in the reserve – a 90% decline in 40 years – some conservationists believe none will be left within a decade.
This time, the chance of an Ionides-style miracle seems more remote.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)