Farmers lose out to Tanzania hydropower

Dar es Salaam - Tanzania, home to Mt Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park, has a tradition of protecting land for the sake of ecological diversity and beauty.

Now the country has a new reason to add to its protected sites list: electricity.

Faced with drought that has cut hydropower production in the face of growing power demand, the Tanzanian government is planning to declare the water supplies of the Mtera and Kidatu hydropower facilities in the south of the country protected sites.

The controversial move would ban any economic activity - including irrigation-fed farming - from taking place near reservoirs or other listed water resources. It is an attempt to ward off competition for water that officials say is affecting power generation.

But farmers say the move would devastate farming, herding, fishing and other ways of making a living in the area.

"I have been farming in this area all my life," said Eliudi Samizi from Kisimani village in Dodoma, one of an estimated 8 000 rice farmers who face losing their water access or potentially being evicted from the banks of the Great Ruaha River.

"If someone asks me to stop fishing or farming, what else can I do to feed my family?" he asked.

Hydropower, which contributes about 57% of the electricity running through Tanzania's grid, has repeatedly suffered from water shortages due to recurring drought.

But an increase in human activities such as irrigated farming, fishing and livestock raising are exacerbating the problem, according to the state-run power company TANESCO.

The government's move to restrict water access comes soon after TANESCO requested a mandate to evict local communities who, according to the company, overuse the water sources near its hydropower plants, leaving the plants with too little water to run their turbines.

Water policy

Mbogo Futakamba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Water, said the Mtera and Kidatu hydropower facilities are among 153 sites in Tanzania that have been earmarked for protection in line with the country's water policy, which calls for the preservation of endangered water sources.

"We have identified various water sources that are in a danger of being destroyed," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Dodoma. "It is just a matter of procedure before the government officially announces those protected sites."

According to farmers, the government already frequently puts temporary bans on irrigation in villages of the country's Morogoro and Iringa regions, which are major food producers, to help create sufficient water flow to run the hydropower plants.

The latest proposal would make those bans permanent.

But farmers and herders claim they are being unfairly targeted. The real culprit, they say, is climate change.

"I don't think telling farmers to stop irrigation will be a lasting solution because there's simply not enough rain to fill up the dams," said Damas John, a pastoralist in Kidatu village in Morogoro.

Some analysts agree, saying that unless the government comes up with strategies to adapt to the changing weather patterns, such as improving rainwater harvesting or building small dams to store excess water, power generation will continue to suffer.

"Micro-dams could help conserve water to support the main dam in months of extreme rainfall variability," said Ladislaus Chang'a, director of research and applied meteorology at the Tanzania Meteorological Agency. "The stored water could then be used to recharge the reservoir and prevent its level from dropping to a critical point."

Power or food

The Mtera reservoir, a large manmade lake nestled on the Great Ruaha River at the border of the Dodoma and Iringa regions, acts as storage for the downstream Kidatu hydropower station. Its dam also regulates the inflow to the Mtera hydropower station.

Depending on the water level, the Mtera reservoir's surface area can be anywhere between 150 and 600 square kilo meters.

According to Justus Mtolera, manager of the Kidatu hydropower plant, major drops in the reservoir's water level are often due to increased water use upstream by farmers, fisheries and animals.

Such drops cause problems for the downstream hydropower plants, he said.

While he agrees that it is important for the government to support irrigated agriculture, Mtolera feels hydropower must be prioritised as an engine for economic development.

"The government should intervene to avoid unnecessary load shedding that affects economic activities," he said.

But some experts say Tanzania's push for hydropower comes at the expense of its people.

Land rights expert Yefred Mnyenzi said the government has often failed to find the right balance between protecting citizens' rights and furthering commercial interests.

"The future of smallholder farmers is uncertain as their rights to access and use land and water resources are always trampled on by powerful investors," Mnyenzi charged. "It is high time for policymakers to pay attention to the voice of poor farmers who need land and water resources for their subsistence."

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