For decades, water-poor Namibia has been planning a suite of four dams on the river Kunene, which it shares with water-rich Angola, Africa’s ‘sleeping giant’, to capitalise on the Kunene’s hydropower potential. Major infrastructural projects like these are promoted in the interest of development (‘uplift’) and the public good. But as Harvey and Knox (2015) show, the meanings of ‘public’ and ‘good’ in such projects are far from stable and coherent. This became apparent when two of the dam projects, Epupa and Orokawe (Baynes), triggered successful protests on behalf of the indigenous local population (OvaHimba, OvaZemba) over displacement and environmental degradation on the Namibian side.
As Ullmann (2018) has noted, the design, planning, projection, and building of infrastructures are never straightforward and are seldom undertaken from scratch, and likewise, the Epupa and Orokawe dam designs have seen multiple incarnations. Supported by energy-hungry South Africa, the Orokawe Dam plan was relaunched in the 2010s, but soon ran into the same problems with vocal local interests as has been the case with Epupa planned a decade before. This time, as has been the with their resistance towards Epupa, the interest groups expanded their reach by availing themselves of the Internet to voice their concerns and mobilised environmentalists with whom they promoted a non-hydro power alternative plan for energy generation. In the Orokawe’s case, protests, however, became a more fragmented affair over time after a rift appeared among the indigenous leadership, including over the issue of what is the public good.
After sketching the history of the plan and resistance to it, we analyse the dynamics in pro and anti-dam discourse over time and find that the shadow of the past (anticolonial and anti-Apartheid struggle and wars) strongly resonates.