Zambezi: The Mekong's diplomatic debacle on repeat

The World Water Week in Stockholm this month is a major fixture in every water policymaker's diary these days.  This year's event, earlier this month, focused on water cooperation – an issue of increasing importance to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) as local water conflicts bubble up and threaten international relations.  Of recent interest has been the Zambezi River Basin, where WLE plans to expand its focus in 2014.

Zambezi River. Photo Credit: Global Water Partnership Zambezi River. Photo Credit: Global Water Partnership on Flickr

Here we go again.  It sounds like a repeat of the diplomatic debacle on the Mekong, where the influence of the intergovernmental Mekong Basin Commission to manage the river is hobbled by its absence of the biggest and most upstream country on the river – China.

This time we are in Africa, where the major river of southern Africa, the Zambezi, two years ago got a basin body, the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZamCom).  But Zambia, the country where the river rises and which houses almost half of the river’s catchment area, is the only country not to join.

Growing unease

This could mean big trouble, as delegates heard at this month's Stockholm World Water Week, where the main theme was international water cooperation.  While delegates could report guarded progress on a number of contested rivers – notably the River Jordan, where Israel has begun returning some flow – there was growing unease about the Zambezi and its millions of water users, especially poor farmers and fishers.

On the face of it, this might sound absurd.  While the Zambezi and its tributaries pass through eight countries, the river basin appears to have water to spare.  Unlike the Nile to the north, there is no fight for the last drop.  Right now, only a fifth of the Zambezi's average annual flow of more than 100 cubic kilometres is used – most of it evaporating from hydroelectric reservoirs.

 If Zambia starts selling the waters of the Zambezi without the permission of its downstream neighbours, there could be serious trouble.

On its upper floodplains, the annual floods still bring rejoicing in anticipation of an abundant harvest.  On the Barotse floodplain in western Zambia, the Lozi people celebrate by bearing their king on a barge to higher ground during their Kuomboka ceremony.

But downstream the stresses are growing.  Hydroelectric dams such as the giant Kariba, on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, and the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique, hold back wet-season flows, and so delay and enfeeble the flood pulse.  This damages ecosystems, fisheries, flood-recession irrigation and wet pastures all the way to the Indian Ocean.

Rich grazing lands have already been damaged by the Itezhi-Tezhi dam on the Kafue Flats in Zambia, where a quarter-million cattle graze in the dry season.  The dam has much reduced the seasonal floods that once kept the flats' rich pastures wet, delegates heard from Jasmin Mertens of the African Dams Project, a Zurich-based research initiative on the Zambezi.

There are other stresses.  In a recent study, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) hydrologist Matthew McCartney warned that land-use change in the basin could be as damaging to the river as concrete barriers.  The basin still has extensive miombo deciduous woodlands, which cover two-thirds of the catchment and represent "one of the largest eco-regions in Africa".  The woodlands are major regulators of the river basin's hydrology, to which natural ecosystems are adapted.  But as farmers and miners strip them, this function will be lost.

Local tension rises over water stress

Even if the basin as a whole has a lot of water, local catchments may not or suffer from periodic droughts.  Local water stress is growing, especially where farmers adopt small-scale irrigation in drought-prone areas such as the Chinyanji Triangle, a large area of the basin on the border between Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. Research being conducted by IWMI here is finding that water shortages are creating social tensions in local communities.

The danger is that local tensions will become regional flashpoints, the African Dams Project reported in Stockholm. "Population and economic growth, as well as expansion of irrigated agriculture and water transfers are likely to have very important transboundary impacts on water availability," risking serious disputes.  The project's study highlighted the risk of Mozambique and Zimbabwe challenging the hydrological hegemony of Zambia's, which uses its power as the upstream nation to "expand its consumptive water use" at their expense.

Hence the concern at Zambia's continued failure to join ZamCom.

Zambia's plan

Zambia is not alone in wanting to exploit the river in a part of Africa that boasts sometimes double-digit economic growth.  Politicians, industrialists and financiers here all "see dams as a development driver," said Dinis Juizo, a civil engineer at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. "New development finance is pouring into the Zambezi basin from China, the BRICS and transnational corporations," agreed Kurt Jensen of the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen, who compared the Zambezi's future with that of the Mekong today.

Leading the charge is Zambia's plan for a megadam in the Batoka gorge, upstream of the Kariba dam on the main stem of the Zambezi.  The $3 billion project has the backing of the African Development Bank and is intended to generate power for the country's fast-expanding industry, based on its copper mines, as well as for export into the emerging international power grid across southern Africa.  This is creating downstream concern.

And Zambia's plans for the river may not end with exporting electricity, said Juizo.  He warned that escalating water demands in the face of drought and climate change across southern Africa will encourage large-scale transfers of water out of the Zambezi basin altogether – to South Africa and elsewhere.  If Zambia starts selling the waters of the Zambezi without the permission of its downstream neighbours, there could be serious trouble.

But none of this makes economic sense.  Numerous studies show that collaboration over a basin's water should ultimately deliver more benefits all round.  The question now for those keen to defuse such disputes is how to persuade Zambia that it is in its own interests to join ZamCom.


While the writer makes some good arguments, it is worth noting that the Batoka Gorge project is "not Zambia". It has been rejected in the past by Zambia but it seems Zimbabwe wants it so badly hence the move on this project. Zambia has several points on the Kafue for HEP generation and could do so without the Batoka project! Another point to note is that though "we all live downstream" there is need to look at the costs and benefits of certain actions.

An interesting article; but I would argue that the commitment of those countries that do join the intergovernmental processes is a more important factor in determining success than the absence of those that don’t. In the case of the Mekong, the major issue hobbling progress in is not the absence of China from the MRC, but the reluctance of member countries to commit to a genuinely shared process. Only around 16% of Mekong flows originate in China, and the fate of the river, in terms of both flows and politics, rests mainly with the downstream countries. Blaming China misses the point, and just provides a convenient scapegoat and excuse for inaction. While the situation in terms of flows may be different in the Zambezi, I think the principle will still apply.

The Mekong River Commission is an interesting comparison. It would be worth reading Scalar Disconnect: The Logic of Transboundary Water Governance in the Mekong by Diana Suhardiaman and Mark Giordano to see how far that comparison stretches. There is a review of the paper on this blog site (Everything is the way it is because it got that way) and you may still be able to download from

Thanks for the comments. All sensible stuff. I certainly don't want to take the comparison with the Mekong too far. But those upstream countries can be a problem!
That may even one day be the problem on the Nile, where historically the bully boy has been downstream Egypt, but where Ethiopian hydro-hegemony is taking shape.
I guess we need treaties rather than commissions. Because at the end of the day, sharing out water on international rivers is a matter of politics rather than science.

It seems that Zambia finally joined the Zambezi Watercourse Commission. Is the problem solved then?

Yes, the cabinet and the president of Zambia actually approved to join ZAMCOM in May this year:

Therefore, this argument was not valid anymore at the time the article was written. Replying to Fred's last comment, I would add that the Zambezi River Commission might play a valuable role to coordinate the water and data sharing, and to initiate treaties, if all the countries are sitting at the table.

From the view point of the African Dams Project, we wanted to highlight that the citation “Population and economic growth, as well as expansion of irrigated agriculture and water transfers are likely to have very important transboundary impacts on water availability,” is not entirely accurate. The project's hydro-economic modeling efforts were focused on an economical analysis of water allocation strategies: “Population and expansion of irrigated agriculture are likely to reduce total net benefits in the Kafue River Basin, and a similar conclusion can be drawn for the Zambezi basin overall. Our Project analysed the tradeoffs between various water users on the Zambezi (e.g. Agriculture, hydropower, environment, domestic supply) and concluded that the gains from cooperation in the management of water resources are paramount. The “risk of serious disputes” is down to own interpretation, but in the discussion of our session we could clearly see that government stakeholders also from downstream countries see the opportunities as well as the challenges, and feel that dialogue is in a positive way increasing between riparian states, so this would contradict this comment.

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