Dams. As children we are raised to look at them as engineering achievements of the highest order, the pride of humanity. As adults we sometimes come to new conclusions if we are enlightened by considering what exactly we have lost beneath the waters of these monuments of man over nature.
There are many monstrous structures that stand in a class by themselves because the rivers they have subdued are amongst the mightiest and most magnificent whitewater rivers on earth. They include Glen Canyon on the Colorado River and the Bio-Bio River in Chile. Soon to be included to this list will be the Maipo River, also in Chile, and the White Nile in Africa. And the Zambezi River.
Unless we stop them somehow. It’s very doubtful. Most likely these places will be lost forever, but not without our voices being heard!
I interviewed DBP Admin Paul Teasdale, founder of RAW Adrenaline and a frequent contributor to this magazine, about the future of one of the most beautiful settings on the planet. He lives and works on the Zambezi and has a unique vantage point on the infamous Batoka Dam. Paul’s photos, from his Instagram account @rawteasdale, also paint a portrait but they only can provide a tiny fraction of the magnificence of this natural wonder.
DBP: Paul, start us off by explaining what is about to be lost by giving us a vivid description of the Batoka Gorge of the Zambezi River.
Paul: The Gorge starts at the Victoria Falls and stretches about 200km (120miles). At the falls the gorge walls are around 110m tall but as you go downstream the walls range between 200 and 250m high before gradually opening out into flatter terrain. Within the first 30km lies the famous 1 day whitewater section, big beautiful whitewater that can only truly be appreciated first hand. The river itself is a drop and pool river in low water season, with nice calm slow moving water that suddenly erupts into a fury as the gradient drops and forms big, fluffy rapids.
It is a truly magnificent stretch of water…between the excitement of the whitewater you can only marvel at the sheer majesty of the gorge walls towering on either side. Nesting in these gorges are many birds of prey including the incredible Verreaux’s Eagle and the Taita Falcon. There are believed to be only about 20 to 50 pairs of these falcons in Zimbabwe and the gorge is one of their nesting sites.
During the rainy season, as you kayak down this section of river there are beautiful waterfalls scattered along the way that have run down from amazing seldom explored side canyons. A canyoner’s paradise. A paddler’s dream. It is a very special place that really can only be experienced in person.
DBP: And all of this is about to be buried forever beneath the waters of the Batoka Dam?
Paul: Yes…it is tragic really. The whitewater will be gone. The canyons will be gone, The birds will be gone. And with the steepness of the wall the dam will pretty much be a dead water system. Not good for fish or wildlife. Especially if they go ahead with the plans to create a Peak Flow dam.
DBP: As of today, how much progress has been made in construction of the dam?
Paul: They have made some inroads and there have been a lot of geologists floating about.
DBP: What is the mood of the local people to this project?
Paul: In one word…..Apathy. I doubt the vast majority of the Zimbabwean population even know about it. The vast majority haven’t even seen the waterfall. Those that do know have resigned themselves to the fact that it is inevitable and just carry on with their lives. Unfortunately there are very very few of us that really do have a strong opinion on the subject.
DBP: As you and the local community understand it, what is the scope of the project? What benefits of damming the Zambezi have been offered to the citizens of Zimbabwe and Zambia?
Paul: Promises of better electricity supply have been dangled as a carrot but most people know this electricity will be mostly exported to other regions and the locals will probably not benefit much. There are also some promises of job opportunities but again, mostly dangling carrots.
DBP: What is the feeling towards the dam of the local river rafting companies? What is the general plan for these outfitters?
Paul: There is only one small owner operated and guided raft company left on this side of the Zambezi, who will be drastically affected by this dam. The others….well, two are giant corporations that have rafting as just one item in their very comprehensive portfolios and they seem to have accepted that the dam will happen. The other one is a larger owner run operation that also has a wider portfolio but the owner is a paddler himself and is personally upset about the development, yet on a business level he has other interests. Rafting is not as profitable as it used to be here. The hey day was definitely in the nineties.
As for me? I am gutted.
DBP: How important is tourism to the vitality of the local economy? And in what way will tourism be affected by the dam’s construction?
Paul: In Zimbabwe as a whole tourism is all we have left. Our entire economy collapsed and industry fell apart. In Victoria Falls Town…..well it is tourism that supports the whole town and this is very clear in the off season where everyone struggles to make ends meet if they didn’t manage to make hay during the peak season. The dam I don’t think will affect this very much actually. The waterfall will always be there and people come here for the waterfall. Our wildlife is also a drawing card…everything else is secondary.
DBP: The Zambezi River is one of the greatest whitewater rivers of the world. As a beginning paddler on the Peshtigo River in Wisconsin many years ago, we would watch over and over an old VCR tape of rafting on the Zambezi. Paul, please leave us with an image of what it is that you love about your home river, and provide the world with an impassioned plea to stop this dam before it is too late.
Paul: The Zambezi is just big! Big and powerful, but she is a forgiving teacher whilst also being a harsh disciplinarian when she needs to be. There is everything here… opportunity for newbies to learn as well as pros to hone their skills on the river. Each rapid has many different lines to choose from depending on your skill level and the warm water welcomes you like a mother’s arms. Damming this magnificent beast is just a travesty of the highest order.
Clogging the veins of the earth…..how could this ever be seen as a good idea? The only way to stop something like this is to go to the source of the money. How exactly? I don’t know…but it needs to be done.
FOOTNOTE: In the past 3 years the estimated cost of construction of the Batoka Dam has increased one billion dollars to a total amount of $4,000,000,000 US. That’s a lot of zeros!!
Talk of another dam upstream of Victoria Falls in Devil’s Gorge has already been suggested…