|18 March 2002
New Maguga Dam
Swaziland's new Maguga dam,
with its promise of regional benefits, is not merely the largest public works
project in this tiny African kingdom's history. It seems a throwback to a time
when dams were erected as an automatic answer to myriad problems.
the days before environmental assessments, any potential negative impact was
either unknown or dismissed in the name of "progress". The Maguga, a South
African-Swaziland joint venture in the northwest of the country, carries with
it that type of old-fashion optimism in a nation that is desperate to combat
the twined problems of unemployment and poverty.
Along the way, if
Swaziland's energy dependence on air-polluting fossil fuel generating plants in
neighbouring countries is lessened, and irrigation water is made available to
modernise peasant farmer's age-old dependence on rain water for their crops,
then so much the better.
Swaziland is threaded by rivers and streams.
But no visionary plans to harvest these for irrigation projects or
hydroelectric generation emerged until South Africa proposed the Komati River
Accord, a treaty that regulates the use of the main northern river that enters
Swaziland from South Africa, meanders around the Hhohho Region, and flows back
into South Africa southeast of Kruger National Park at the border village
The partnership with South Africa allowed Swaziland to raise
capital for the dam, after satisfying international lending organisations of
the project's environmental soundness. The government was also able to ensure
the lenders that the dam was more than a construction project, and sustainable
development would result.
"The dam was proposed in the 1990s, not the
1960s, and we are a lot more sophisticated about blocking a river and flooding
an ecosystem," said a source as the Komati Basin Water Authority, which
supervised the project. "Social and cultural impact had to be considered, too."
Ancestral graves were moved, sports facilities were constructed for
local youth, homesteads were relocated with less fuss than that which usually
accompanies the construction of national highways, and a colony of workers'
homes were sold to Swazis when they were vacated, to help alleviate a housing
shortage in the area. Rare pink and yellow Crassula wildflowers were
transplanted out of the zone of inundation.
"Something had to be done
to boost the economy of a region where the number one cash crop is marijuana,
which is illegal, and where there is no industry or tourism," said Hhohho
Regional Administrator Ben Nsibandze. His nephews plan a recreational and
fishing boat rental business for visitors to the 1042-hectare fresh water lake
that will fill the valley behind the 870 metre-long dam.
of enterprise and employment is drawing unemployed youth to seminars explaining
how to set up tourism-oriented businesses that do no environmental harm, like
hiking, adventure and cultural tourism, and leading excursions to prehistoric
cave drawings in the surrounding hills.
Rising 115 metres, the dam
when completely filled has a storage capacity of 332 million square metres of
water. Earlier efforts in Africa like Egypt's Aswan dam were studied to avoid a
repetition of their mistakes. Maguga dam is only the fourth largest in the
southern Africa region (South Africa has the three largest dams), but it will
be more efficient.
For two years, earthmoving equipment has excavated
a deep gorge, to minimise the lake's surface area in relation to its volume of
water. With a relatively small surface area, the lake will lose less of its
stored volume to evaporation than that suffered by the larger dams. As a
result, a shorter stretch of the Komati had to be flooded.
main claim to fame as far as sustainable development is concerned is to provide
a reliable source of irrigation water to the big agricultural concerns,
especially the timber and sugar estates, and the small farmers who are forming
cooperatives," said agriculture field officer Joe Khumalo.
conducting workshops in the Lubombo District 200 km downstream, on the other
side of the country, where it is parched and much of the Maguga's water will be
directed. This water will allow small land holder farmers to give up the single
crop tradition of maize to grow cash crops like tomatoes for export," he added.
Sixty-percent of the dam's water has been guaranteed to South Africa
by the 1992 Komati River Basin Accord. That still leaves ample irrigation water
for use in a country where two-thirds of the people live under chiefs in small
landholder family farms, raising the staple food, maize without use of
irrigation. "Two-thirds of Swazi also live below the poverty line," said
Khumalo. "There is a correlation here."
Currently, Swaziland imports
90 percent of its electrical power from South Africa, primarily generated from
coal burning power plants. The coal comes from Swaziland, whose entire
production is sold to South African industry. Other than coal, Swaziland's
once-thriving mining sector is dormant, though the Maguga dam construction did
provide a temporary boost by creating a demand for 150,000 cubic mt of crushed
In an interview, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said: "The
Maguga dam has the potential of meeting 50 percent of Swaziland's electricity
needs. It is also possible to export power through a new regional 400 kV line
as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo."
King Mswati is
expected to cut the ribbon and send water cascading down the dam's front sluice
in time for the farmers' cooperatives to plant their first tomatoes of this
year's cropping season. (IRIN)