Development is a very positive word that conjures up visions of progress. The verb to develop means to grow, mature, advance or elaborate. International Development assistance is something we think of as ‘good’ as it is intended to aid the ‘deserving’ poor. Much money has been spent on efforts to transform society and change ecological systems in the name of combatting poverty, however many projects have done little to assist the poor and have damaged local environments.
In Africa dam building became one iconic means of delivering development in the 1960s and 1970s. International Development assistance was crucial in these projects as they were frequently funded by loans from the colonial powers or other sources of finance from banks in rich countries. In addition to loans, expertise in design, engineering, construction and hydrology also came from Europe and America. Local traditional knowledge of drainage and river flooding patterns was often omitted from planning processes.
The interests of fishers and surrounding farming communities were marginalised. New modern dams flooded river valleys and displaced local people, blocked the movements of fish, ended the seasonal flooding of agricultural lands, and disrupted the habitats of animals that had lived on flood plains.
In 1974 the Cahora Bassa Dam was completed on the Zambezi River in the Portuguese east African colony of Mozambique. Cahora Bassa shaped the course of one of Africa’s mightiest waterways. The concrete dam stood 171 meters tall and 303 meters wide and the Cahora Bassa Lake formed by damming the Zambezi was a huge reservoir, 250 Kilometres long and 38 Kilometres wide. The project was finished in the final throes of Portuguese colonialism and was an agonizing and painful attempt to modernize the impoverished North of Mozambique. Cahora Bassa originally cost a huge amount – US $515 million – and the dam was intended to expand irrigated farmland, promote European settlement, facilitate mining, improve communication and transport, reduce flooding risk, and above all produce energy and revenue by generating electricity. Cahora Bassa was more than just a hydroelectric mega scheme. Prior to decolonization Portugal exerted authority and control over the local population through the building phase of this mammoth hydrological project.
Construction involved labour exploitation, the displacement of agricultural and fishing communities, institutional violence and environmental disturbance. At the same time the Portuguese dictatorship tried to portray itself to the international community as a developmental administrator that was modernizing Mozambique for the benefit of local people.
After independence in 1975 a Portuguese state-owned company, Hidroeléctrica de Cahora Bassa (HCB), assumed responsibility for the massive debt incurred in building the dam. The Portuguese retained ownership of 82 percent of the dam with only 18 percent going to the Mozambican government. HCB retained the right to manage the dam for decades until Mozambique repaid the huge construction costs. In 2007 Mozambique agreed to pay an inflated price of US $900 million to increase its holding to 85 percent. Until that time HCB controlled the dam, determining the water flow and selling the electricity to neighbouring South Africa. For the first 32 years of operation Mozambique received virtually no access to the electricity produced by the dam nor the revenue from electricity sales. It remained a constant reminder of neo-colonialism and a lack of sovereignty.
Cahora Bassa had a prominent place in Mozambican society, and even featured on the 100,000 Meticals bank note printed in 1993. The image of gushing water and the curved dam on the mountainous Zambezi valley symbolised how this project was intended to deliver development, whereas the huge denomination of the bank bill demonstrated the economic travails that Mozambique had suffered. Inflation had made the national Metical currency nearly worthless. A significant contribution to the problems resulted from the terms negotiated with the Portuguese.
Not only has Cahora Bassa represented a big financial loss to the Mozambican treasury, but a further cost of this concrete mega structure was borne by the rural poor of the Zambezi valley. Their traditional livelihoods were at best disrupted and in some cases destroyed by the damming of the river.
For Mozambicans Cahora Bassa continues to be a living memory of the long-standing effects of Portuguese colonialism.
Rather than figuratively or literally electrifying progress, Cahora Bassa has drained local communities of energy through the displacement of livelihoods and the disruption of ecosystem services. Sadly, there have been many other development projects implemented in Africa in the last 50 years that have not helped lift people out of poverty and instead left countries heavily indebted and caused environmental damage.
Dr Andrew Brooks is a Lecturer in
Development Geography at King’s College London
and author of ‘The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity’
published by Zed Books