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Selous Game Reserve

Stiegler's Gorge along the River Rufiji may be under threat

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  Feb 13, 2011

(eTN) - While the controversy over the planned Serengeti highway continues unabated – especially in light of Tanzania government's decision to go ahead by hook or crook – another potential nail in Tanzania’s conservation coffin is gradually emerging in the public domain.

Regular and reliable sources in Dar es Salaam and Arusha have confirmed that the present electricity shortage, which is almost crippling the country’s manufacturing sector and impacting substantially on the financial bottom lines of all businesses including the hospitality sector, is largely caused by the lack of preventive maintenance of equipment, rendering turbines useless, while an oncoming drought is again expected to keep the water levels in hydro-electric dams below sufficient levels. Thermal generation, according to the same sources in a key standby power plant, did not commence until now as the Tanzania Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) failed to procure and deliver fuel to the power station, denying the country of over 50 megawatts of potential feed into the national grid.

Yet, as if the country had learned nothing from the year-long controversy over plans to kill the Serengeti migration by constructing a highway right across the migration paths of the great herds, plans dating back some 40 or more years are being taken out of old filing cabinets, dusted off and reconsidered to build another hydro-electric power plant at Stiegler’s Gorge along the River Rufiji in the Selous Game Reserve to alleviate the chronic power shortages, rather than repairing, refurbishing, and upgrading existing facilities – or for that matter get the fuel to the standby station in time.

Around the same time when the Rufiji plans were originally drawn up, similar plans emerged in Uganda to build a power station at the Murchisons Falls of the River Nile. This project, however, was shelved for a number of reasons – conservation actually among them even back then – and Uganda is better off for it today in spite of the current shortfall of electricity production, which the Bujagali plant will remedy when the first turbine comes online later this year. The tourism potential of the Murchisons Falls National Park turned out to be a regular and growing source of revenue for the country – visitors are coming from across the world to Uganda to see such attractions, in particular the only major waterfalls of this branch of the Nile in the wilderness setting of the park. This is the Victoria Nile turning into the Albert Nile turning into the White Nile – the "other" Blue Nile from Ethiopia, however, too has major waterfalls but are far less explored or visited. Both branches of the Nile then meet in Khartoum.

The Ugandan government went as far as committing that the Kalagala Falls, below the upcoming Bujagali power station, will not be tapped for electricity as an offset – aimed to protect biodiversity and the scenic value for tourism of these falls – agreed with the World Bank as part of the package of the co-financing of the Bujagali project. This was reaffirmed only earlier this week, but will likely be brushed off by Tanzania as irrelevant, as they brushed aside every logical and common sense argument so far about their highway project.

Therefore, for Tanzania, presently the bad news simply does not seem to stop. Considering the defeat the country suffered at the hands of the CITES meeting in Doha a year ago, which turned down Tanzania’s request to sell off both "regular" and confiscated blood ivory, the customs department then late last year tried to auction off confiscated ivory in circumvention of the CITES ban, claiming it was processed or semi-processed and, therefore, excluded from the global trade restriction CITES has placed on ivory. These two events brought the spotlight on Tanzania from the global conservation fraternity, and when a newly-imported Eastern Black Rhino was found slaughtered in the Serengeti, allegedly due to the absence of a 24/7 protection detail by rangers and wardens, allegedly over the lack of funding from government, even die-hard supporters of the Serengeti, like the Frankfurt Zoological Society, started getting cold feet, more so as the highway plans were already threatening to lay to waste dozens of years of conservation efforts and financial support.

UNESCO has given clear indication that the building of a highway would result in the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site status being withdrawn, a threat incidentally also on the cards over an equally controversial hotel project in the "Stone Town" of Zanzibar, which also presently has UNESCO recognition and has also come under the spotlight in recent weeks, when news of the deal became public knowledge. Those threats also do not seem to have sunk into the minds of the powers that be, as tourism stakeholders are increasingly getting anxious and desperate over such unwelcome prospects.

The emerging talk of a potential power plant along the Rufiji River, especially at the scenic Stiegler’s Gorge, will, therefore, undoubtedly cause yet more alarm among the conservation fraternity and the Tanzanian tourism sector, since the Selous – the world’s largest game reserve – is potentially a huge asset for the industry and has hardly been opened up so far, in other words still offering plenty of investment opportunities for more tourist facilities in hitherto unexplored parts of the reserve. The Selous has in recent years, partly because of its remoteness, been hit by poaching but still remains incredibly rich of wildlife and birdlife. Only last year did Serena Hotels add two top-of-the-line tented camps, while the owners of The Arusha Hotel also opened a luxury camp in the Selous in early 2010, all incidentally reached through Stiegler’s Airstrip.

While presently no one can say with certainty what impact a hydro-electric dam and power plant would have on the river and the gorge, or on the Selous as a whole, opposition to such plans will swiftly grow, should indeed government want to go ahead with the revival of such plans. Environmental Impact Assessments are known to have been hijacked in Tanzania by using groups of consultants suspected to produce a pre-determined conclusion as part of their generous fees, casting doubt about the results of any such studies where government is the main paymaster.

The final outcome though, considering the current breed of leaders in Tanzania, which already have and continue to trample the conservation legacy of founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere into the dust, may simply be that irrespective of logic, reasoned argument, and facts to the contrary, they may still go ahead anyway and build a power plant right there and as is the case with the Serengeti Highway, putting profit, and allegedly individual greed, before the environment.

In the latter case, although at the same time asking development partners and the World Bank for funding for a variety of projects and to cover for general budget shortfalls, Tanzania has declined a World Bank offer to finance the alternative "Southern route" running behind the main migration routes of the wildebeest and zebras and slammed the door in the face of the World Bank Country Representative. He was told by none other than the president himself that "the Southern route is no alternative to serve the people of the region." Intriguing words considering that the main interests being served by the new highway are those of mining companies who allegedly contributed most generously to the ruling party’s last election campaign – quid pro quo in other words - especially when finance may in fact be offered as part of bilateral assistance from China, which reportedly has major interests in exploiting Tanzania’s mineral wealth. This rumor has never been fully denied nor related questions ever been satisfactorily answered to the few in the Tanzanian media brave enough to still ask such questions.

Will conservation have to yield in Tanzania for every upcoming industrial, power or mining project in the future and become a lost cause? Again, we wait to see, as time will tell.

Stiegler's Gorge along the River Rufiji may be under threat
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