Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What's so Patriotic about Stiegler’s Gorge Project?

What is patriotic and what is not between development and conservation? The Political Ecology of Stiegler’s Gorge Hydroelectric Power Project in Tanzania


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In June 2017, the 5th administration made public its ambitious plan to build what would become the biggest power project in Tanzania. Expected to generate 2,100 MW of electricity, the Stigler’s Gorge Hydroelectric Project (HEP) will draw its water from the Rufiji River. The rationales given were: high energy demand for yet another government's ambitious plan of transforming the country into an industrial economy; and the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project that would run on electricity.

Of course, you need reliable power to run the factories and indeed the train. That makes perfect economic sense. No objections!

The breaking news coincided with a backlash from local and international conservation groups who regarded implementing the project as signing a death warrant to the Selous Game Reserve (UNESCO’s heritage site) and socio-ecological systems, which are primarily dependent on the Rufiji River, especially in the lower course of the river. This is where livelihoods of hundred of thousand of people depend on irrigated paddy farming and where fishing and mangroves ecosystem flourish. A huge tension between the two sides was thus sparked and it is no secret that conservationists and environmentalists are now regarded as enemy to the project, in particular, and to the country or state, in general.
In this reflection, I attempt to make sense of claims from both sides of the debate and propose a compromise. In view of that, I argue that the move by the government to bring back the Stiegler’s HEP project on board comes as a desperate attempt to ensure that there is reliable energy supply after the recent drastic reforms in the energy and extractive sectors’ regulatory regimes. Similarly, the position that has been taken by conservationists and environmental experts does not necessarily imply conspiring with “imperialists” who wishes to see that Tanzania is economically doomed. Rather, they have been advocating for conservation policies and regulations that we, as a country, have embraced and even been praised for. 

As the 4th administration was about to enter its second and last term, Tanzania witnessed a bold move by the government to adopt what was then dubbed a “gas driven economy”. Legal and institutional reforms were made and the tone was set. It was then a high gear on gas and a lower one on hydro and thermal as sources of power. The cheerleader of the movement was the then Minister responsible for energy, Professor  Sospeter Muhongo.
 The country, therefore, witnessed a series of news headlines about discoveries of commercially exploitable natural gas deposits and it was high time Tanzania shifted to gas as a major source of energy, forsaking hydro and thermal ones, which were deemed burdensome given the siltation in our HEP dams. Global warming was aptly blamed for extreme low water levels and this resulted in high costs of running/hiring diesel generators. This is around the same period when we saw the plan (then) to build Stiegler’s HEP under the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA) abandoned. 

In the first two years of the 5th administration, we have witnessed a radical shift in management of the economy, which I dare equate to undoing of the preceding administration’s economic outlook. It became very clear from the outset that the government was embarking on a state-led (or dominated, if I may) economic model. This is what Thabit Jacob, a Tanzanian researcher currently based at Roskilde University in Denmark and who has done extensive research on role of the state in the extractive sector, term as “The Return of the State.” 
Well, it was not declared as such, but the move to shake up tax and fiscal regimes, legal and institutional reforms in productive sectors, especially extractives, left no doubt that that is the way we were going. What most of us were told, is that this was a move to curb grand tax evasion, corruption, theft of the country’s natural wealth, and other forms of economic malaise. Natural gas exploration and extraction is one of sub-sectors that felt the impact of the reforms the most. For example, just recently, a global leader in the sector, Exxon Mobil, expressed its wish to sell its stakes in Tanzania. Coupled with recent oil and gas discoveries in neighbouring Mozambique, and possibly fairer business environment (in the investors perspective), facts are not so hard to find as to the current situation in Tanzania regarding the oil and gas economy. 

The TZS 700 billion ($308 million) allocated in the 2018-2019 budget for the Stiegler’s HEP is insignificant when one considers investment costs in gas exploration and, that is, if  the exploration are successful. I personally don’t see how the current regime can smoothly continue with gas exploration without joining hands with private investors (with financial and technological capital) whom seem to be quite displeased with the current developments. This only leaves the country with HEP as the most viable option given the current economic situation and our urgent need for energy. 

In May 2018, it was in the news that a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on Stiegler’s HEP has been undertaken and completed. This brought to rest speculations that the 2009 EIA would be used for the project as currently proposed. Good news (to the project proponent) was that the new EIA has given a green light for construction work to proceed. According to the lead researcher for the EIA, Professor Raphael Mwalyosi, the proposed project’s impacts found were preventable. The researcher was quoted saying that "Our assessment has revealed that the project can be implemented without any form of fear. The only best approach is to set strategies that will prevent such environment impacts," (Daily News, 13 June 2018)

Despite the good news, the EIA findings were later lambasted as unrealistic. Its lead researcher was accused of being unpatriotic, probably for airing some reservations (mitigation measures) regarding how the project should proceed with minimum negative impacts to the people and the environment. From the look of things, one would understand that the issue here is not about environmentalists not being patriotic. Rather, the urgency with which the country needs energy to feed its ambitious projects that are underway.
Hence, it seems, the government will stop at nothing to make sure there is reliable energy (let’s bother about sustainability later). It is quite unfortunate that this time around, it was environmentalists colluding with imperialists to derail the country’s development agenda. Ooh, so many enemies we have now! 

I still regard EIA as a very important component in any development project and, therefore, part of the development process. EIA is not anti-development as most would think but an assurance that what we do is sustainable and for the greater good. And, if I were to propose, a project of such magnitude as 2,100 MW HEP Dam warrants a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) as its impacts will spill over several sectors of the economies and socio-ecological subsystems.

2 comments:

Andrew Mahiga November 15, 2018 at 10:25 AM  

Good article but the title threw me off because I don't think patriotism is the issue, its mostly developmental and environmental.

A. Massawe November 15, 2018 at 11:59 PM  

The environmental concerns raised so far against the Stigler’s hydro-power project are not much of what could render it a counterproductive.

Simply because the overall environmental and economic costs of the Stigler’s water dam which would enable to harness the 2100 MW of hydro-power continuing to drain into the Indian Ocean unharnessed as waste,as well as large scale irrigation and fresh water fish farming to be carried out downstream more reliably throughout the year would compare with the overall benefits of the same as insignificant; and that, continuing environmental engineering is going to maintain the environmental and economic status of it throughout a changing operating environment.

That is, rather than call for the abandonment of the Stigler’s hydro-power project due to its environmental impacts; stakeholders should instead concentrate on their mitigation, as well as on how to harness the whole of its environmental and economic benefits.

It is an issue of benefit and cost comparison rather than of patriotism against the foreign hypocrites who are arguing for the wildlife in total disregard of the people it shares habitat with.

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