Hydroelectric dam threatens ancient traditions

Namibia’s Himba, distinctive for smearing their bodies with red ochre, say a planned dam that will flood the valleys where they live and their burial grounds also threatens their ancient traditions and lifestyle.

“We survive from the Baynes mountains. It is where we can move our cattle in spring-time for grazing, where we get the honey sugar. It is our kitchen,” said Muhapikwa Muniombara.

“If they build the dam, they’ll kill us,” said the 35-year-old, who has traditional necklaces and bracelets adorning her ochre-tinged body.

The largely nomadic Himba also bury their dead in the arid hills around the Kunene River which forms an oasis in the vast desert and part of Namibia’s northern border with Angola.

Generations of these graves will be flooded by the mooted 1700-gigawatt hydroelectric dam and the Himba worry their ancestors will be angered and could react badly, causing havoc with their lives.

But moving the graves isn’t an option, Muniombara says, pointing to a dozen burial sites in the mountains surrounding her village of Okapare.

“If they move the graves, the whole spirit is going to die,” Muniombara says. “If they remove the graves, everything will get dry, there won’t be more grazing.”

The new dam will bring electricity and water to villages like Okapare, which has neither, but this does not convince Muniombara.

“We don’t want the water. We don’t want electricity. We have water at the fountains. We want to live naturally,” she says.

The dam, first proposed in the 1990s, was originally meant to have been built farther up the river but it would have swallowed a popular tourist destination – the Epupa Falls, fringed by palm and baobab trees.

So the government decided to move it toward Baynes.

“The dam will not affect the Epupa Falls and is situated in a deep ravine approximately 40 kilometres downstream of the falls, with a low population density of Himba,” said Mike Everett of the Environmental Resources Management consultancy that conducted feasibility studies for the dam.

Once Angola and Namibia give the final go-ahead to the project, the dam could take seven years to build, he says.

A group of young Namibians at the Epupa Falls are eager, saying it will help to solve chronic power shortages.

Namibia imports more than half of its electricity from South Africa, but hopes hydropower, new coal plants or even a nuclear plant could boost supplies and feed its money-spinning uranium mines.

“I’m for it because we need energy and it will create jobs. People go to school then they go back to the village looking after their parents’ goats again,” says 28-year-old Ratutji Muhenje.

“The dam will bring development with shops,” he says, in modern garb of jeans, a T-shirt and sunglasses.

But for older Himba, the new roads that will bring in thousands of construction workers to the dam site could also introduce ideas will erode their traditional culture.

In a sparsely populated nation of two million people, about 18 000 Himbas live on the Namibian side of the border, with another 9000 on the Angolan side, according to anthropologist David Crandall.

Their ancestors migrated from the Great Lakes region of central Africa about 200 years ago, and they have survived with their traditions despite wars and droughts.

“Tradition changes. In the old times, we survived on goats and cows but now people can get many things because of the shops,” said Kambo Javara, who says he is the oldest man in Okapare.

With a scarf around his head, signalling that he is a married man, and necklaces over his bare chest, Javara wonders what the future will bring.

“Where am I going to live? Where will my cattle get food?” he said.

“I have no way to say no to the government.”

We are at a crossroads. We need to generate more power to supply our overburdened economies. Why we keep ignoring the sun is beyond me. A free resource to generate solar power! Whilst Hydroelectric power is at least sustainable energy, it requires us to build massive dams. Each time you dam water, it has repercussions down river as you are altering nature. Solar energy is fully sustainable and is relatively cheap to install.

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