Dam builder gets Zuma help

2013-09-27 00:00

THE developer behind several concept multi-billion-rand mega hydro-electricity projects in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape has enlisted the help of President Jacob Zuma’s farming NGO to fast track the process.

The Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative (MRDI), which is chaired by Zuma and operated by his cousin, Deebo Mzobe, confirmed assisting the Zimbabwe-based family-owned Cochrane Group to secure the necessary authorisations and meet political heads. The company endeavours to build eight dams split equally between the Tugela River and the Tsitsa Falls River in the Eastern Cape, generating a combined 500 MW of energy.

But the Department of Water Affairs (DWA), which has apparently ring-fenced the proposed sites of the dams according to the developer, knows very little about the dams.

A yet to be announced Chinese consortium is expected to enter into a joint venture with the Cochrane Group.

Richard Cochrane, who is leading the project for the Cochrane Group, said they have the buy-in of Zuma and have his assurances that the environmental impact assessments (EIA) will be accelerated.

The group has interests throughout Africa, specifically in the energy sector.

“Normally a dam takes up to 20 years to build, with the vast majority of this time dedicated to studies. We said to the president that if the EIA process could be sped up to one year, we will build the dams and there will be no sovereign cost.

“We have done the hydrology and geology studies. Now we are now tying up the partner before we proceed further,” said Cochrane.

The power is to be sold to private ventures and onto the Eskom grid.

Four dams are to be built in the first phase, expected to be in construction within in the next four years.

He said MRDI became interested in the project after hearing about it from MECs and ministers about 18 months ago.

The Cochrane Group admitted to financing a MRDI gala dinner at East London in April 2012 for 500 guests, who included Zuma and cabinet officials, using the opportunity to meet the right people and obtain the necessary signatures.

The money was paid directly to MRDI as they picked up the bill, according to the hotel.

The gala dinner was part of an outreach project where the MRDI handed out 17 tractors to several rural communities in the province.

Mzobe said while MRDI is not “in business” with the Cochrane Group, they are “a partner”.

“The dams are going ahead. With the dams, we will be able to significantly boost our irrigation potential in poor rural communities. These developments are very exciting and it will have a massive socioeconomic impact,” said Mzobe.

Environmentalist Andrew Venter said environmental concerns are not likely to stop such developments. “It could be fast tracked, but it will likely come with very strict conditions, such as relocation of families. Dams aren’t necessarily built out of necessity, but usually due to powerful consortiums wielding influence through political fixers to drive a mega project. The commissions and kickbacks on such a project are huge,” said Venter.

DWA spokesperson Linda Page said the proposed dams appeared to be at a concept level. “Details of the technical feasibility and the feasibility planning that have been undertaken are unclear. Permission for such developments would be in the form of a licence and no application has been received. We do not have details of the locations of the dams,” said Page.

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