“Damming a River” is the Appropriate Word

The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko’s incredible book that we highlighted in our last blog entry, chronicles the effects that Glen Canyon Dam had on the Colorado River and the profound water shortage issues in the Colorado Plateau.  This refresher in History 101 is just the tip of the iceberg and we seem to be forgetting our lessons that 90 percent of the ice is still below the surface.  Like the Colorado, other great rivers around the planet such as the Indus and the Yellow, no longer reach the ocean, turning once-productive deltas into biological deserts.


More than tropical rainforests, marine environments, or coastal wetlands, our freshwater ecosystems are experiencing the greatest loss of biodiversity in history and it is in large measure due to the construction of dams.  


Presently, the great river basins of the world are experiencing a new wave of damming.  The Amazon, Congo and the Mekong rivers, each superlative in their contributions to planetary cycles, biodiversity and human livelihood dependence, are in the cross hairs of civil engineers.  Each of these basins are threatened with narrow-sighted schemes that will irreversibly disconnect rivers and cost the planet billions in lost ecosystem services.  The globe’s bursting population and it’s thirst for hydropower  – much akin to crack addicts looking for their next fix – paints an ugly picture on the horizon as burgeoning economies crave electricity to try and industrialize while we, North Americans, have a relentless appetite to fuel our laptops, smart phones and Ipads.

Africa is considered a land of plenty for the large-dam industry – lots of massive rivers and growing need for electricity.  Hundreds of new large dams are planned for major African rivers. Yet the continent’s existing dams have done little to reduce the continent’s high rates of poverty.  However, four of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams—Kariba, Itezhi-Tezhi, Kafue and Cahora Bassa—have stopped most of the Zambezi’s annual floods with their huge reservoirs.

These reservoirs create unsuitable habitat for most river species and the changes to the river have brought great hardships to the people and wildlife of the Zambezi basin.  Erratic and mistimed flooding below Cahora Bassa Dam has adversely affected the living standards of hundreds of thousands of downstream households and will eventually decimate one of the most productive and diverse wetland ecosystems in Africa, the Zambezi Delta.

Some of the most important wetland areas in Africa, such as the Okavango Delta and Kafue Flats, are linked to the Zambezi River system.  Although few places evoke a sense of untamable African wilderness like the Zambezi, efforts to control the river and its tributaries behind large hydroelectric dams have greatly diminished its productivity and diversity.  Nowhere have the consequences been more dire than in the great Zambezi Delta.

The  Zambezi River is already one the most dammed rivers in the world and this autumn, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique reached an agreement to build two more dams on the Zambezi.  The newest dam project in the Batoka Gorge is going to radically alter communities below the falls and completely wipe out the white rafting industry.  Ironically, tourism in Victoria Falls was the only industry that has been stable in Zimbabwe since political and economic unrest nearly annihilated the economy.

The world will certainly continue to spin without this stretch of whitewater but is certainly a lesser place and I cannot help but feel that nothing in the adventure world is held sacred or has perceived value.  On so many levels it feels blasphemous to be damming a river below one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the Word”.  So, if you ever wanted to experience the world’s greatest stretch of user-friendly whitewater, the time is now.  The plans to build these dams have been on the table for a long time and unfortunately it’s finally happening.

The Batoka Gorge section of the Zambezi is a whitewater mecca.  The volume of water coming over Victoria Falls combined with a seemingly endless, 300-foot deep vertical gorge makes for the most incredible whitewater experience on the planet.  The fact there are virtually no rocks and deep pool-drop rapids, allows paddlers to challenge rapids that were once unimaginable.   Sadly in less than two years, they will only be  “imaginable” as the Batoka Gorge will be flooded right up to the base of the falls.