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Last Updated: Monday, 30 June, 2003, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Namibia's power battle
The proposed building of a massive dam to supply electricity for Namibia has met with fierce resistance from both environmental groups and local tribes.

Epupa falls
One day's water power would supply Windhoek for a year
The proposed Epupa dam project - to be built on the Kunene river in the north-west of the country - would dramatically alter the environment by flooding a vast expanse of the region.

Although this would require long-settled tribes to be moved and destroy the beautiful Epupa valley, government officials in the country's capital Windhoek defend the dam almost as a matter of national pride.

"The government has got a responsibility to develop this country," Pete Haines, the director of resource management at Namibia's ministry of agriculture, water and rural development, told BBC World Service's Politics Of Water programme.

"It will also take measures in the national interest to make sure that this development can take place."

Huge capacity

The Epupa dam project is particularly suited to hydropower because of the steep gradient of the Kunene to the coast, Mr Haines adds.

In a single day, enough water flows down the Kunene river to supply Windhoek for a year.

The project is necessary, contends John Langford of NamPower - which generates and supplies the country's energy - because the surplus from South Africa on which the country currently depends will shortly run out.

"By about 2012-2013, they will run out of base load capacity in South Africa and that of course will cause the electricity prices to rise sharply," Mr Langford says.

Himba grave
Himba burial sites are the source of much tension
"If you've got cheap energy, that's also a very key driver to getting investments into your country - so I think it's a very, very important development for Namibia."

If the dam goes ahead, it will be massive - the reservoir will have a capacity of seven and a half thousand million cubic metres, will be 80 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide at its broadest strip.

"For tourism, you would have created something like 13 islands, and you could have established quite a good fishing industry in this reservoir as well," Mr Langford stresses.

But he adds a consequence will be the destruction of 80 kilometres of river and forest - which are the livelihood of the local Himba people.

"They're nomads farming with cattle and they utilise the river and forest next to the river to see them through the dry period," Mr Langford says.

'Irreversible desertification'

It is this widespread destruction - near Namibia's boarder with Angola - that is proving so controversial.

"It's such beautiful scenery and it's our heritage, so what do we tell our children?" asks Bertchen Kohrs, chairperson of pressure group Earthlife Namibia.

"Our main concern is development and environment. It is said that round about 6,000 palm trees grow there, very specific palm trees and the nuts which are called the Omuranga nuts are used by the Himbas as an important source of nutrition, especially in times of drought.

Himba village
Though officially nomadic, the Himba have permanent settlements
"And then of course 380 square kilometres of grazing land would be lost, meaning that the area surrounding will be over-grazed in a short time.

"That leads to erosion and definitely to desertification, which is irreversible."

Although the Himba are officially classed as nomadic, many of the villagers and the rest of the tribe and their animals have been close to the same spot for decades.

Most of them are aware of the prospects of the dam and are opposed to it.

"This is the land where we are grazing our animals and where our graves are," the Himba's chief, Capicka, told Politics Of Water.

"[The government] know very well that this place is not for them; this is for the Himba people."

He adds that building the dam will cause the river to die.

"God created the Himba to stay near to the Kunene River so that they can graze their cattle there, and so that they can take the water out of the river of Kunene," he says. "The dam at Epupa will not be built while I am still alive, while I am still speaking."

Aids fears

But Peter Haines argues that it is wrong to say people's livelihoods would be destroyed.

"The guy who now lives 10 metres from the river in his hut - if the dam is built he can still live 10 metres from the edge of the water, but just at another place," he says.

Mr Haines believes ultimately the Kunene river project will benefit the Himba.

"The government provides schools for those people; they provide clinics. They want to supply them with electricity; they want to give those people access to communication and they want to see them as fully integrated citizens of this country.

Epupa falls
The Epupa valley would vanish underwater
"So I can't agree with you that our government is there to deny these people anything or to wreck their living conditions."

The proposed project has, however, brought other issues to light, too - including one of the biggest problems in the whole region, Aids.

A NamPower study found that the prevalence of the virus amongst the Himba was much lower than in the rest of Namibia.

But there are fears that the influx of construction workers who would be brought in with the building of the dam would massively change that.

"If the project was to go ahead, one would have had to go to school the Himba people on the bad effects of Aids and what would happen if they had sexual relations with some of the construction workers," NamPower's John Langford says.

Meanwhile, the Earthlife Namibia has proposed alternatives to the Kunene river dam, claiming they would cost a quarter of the price of the government's big scheme.

"We feel that the alternative of the Ecuudo gas plant should have been studied in detail," Mr Kohrs says.

And he believes research into solar power could have proved particularly important.

"Obviously in a country like this, we have 360 days of sun per year and that has not been done at all."

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