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Making waves on the Kunene: the conflict over the Epupa and Orokawe dams

Richard Meissner1, Jeroen Warner2

1CSIR, Pretoria, South Africa
2Wageningen University, the Netherlands

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.

Faire des vagues sur le Kunene: le conflit autour des barrages d'Epupa et d'Orokawe

Richard Meissner1, Jeroen Warner2

1 CSIR, Pretoria, Afrique du Sud
2 Université de Wageningen, Pays-Bas

Depuis des décennies, la Namibie, pauvre en eau, prévoit de construire une suite de quatre barrages sur le fleuve Kunene, qu’elle partage avec l’Angola, le géant endormi de l’Afrique, riche en eau, pour capitaliser sur le potentiel hydroélectrique de Kunene. De grands projets d’infrastructure comme ceux-ci sont promus dans l’intérêt du développement («soulèvement») et du bien public. Mais comme Harvey et Knox (2015) le montrent, les significations de «public» et de «bien» dans de tels projets sont loin d’être stables et cohérentes. Cela est devenu évident lorsque deux des projets de barrage, Epupa et Orokawe (Baynes), ont déclenché des protestations réussies au nom de la population locale indigène (OvaHimba, OvaZemba) contre le déplacement et la dégradation de l’environnement du côté namibien.
Comme Ullmann (2018) l’a noté, la conception, la planification, la projection et la construction d’infrastructures ne sont jamais simples et sont rarement entreprises à partir de zéro, et de même, les conceptions des barrages d’Epupa et d’Orokawe ont connu de multiples incarnations. Soutenu par l’Afrique du Sud énergivore, le plan du barrage d’Orokawe a été relancé dans les années 2010, mais a rapidement rencontré les mêmes problèmes avec les intérêts locaux vocaux que cela a été le cas avec Epupa prévu une décennie auparavant. Cette fois, comme cela a été le cas avec leur résistance envers Epupa, les groupes d’intérêt ont élargi leur portée en se prévalant d’Internet pour exprimer leurs préoccupations et ont mobilisé les écologistes avec lesquels ils ont promu un plan alternatif non hydroélectrique pour la production d’énergie. Dans le cas d’Orokawe, les manifestations sont toutefois devenues une affaire plus fragmentée au fil du temps après qu’une fracture est apparue parmi les dirigeants autochtones, y compris sur la question de ce qui est le bien public.
Après avoir esquissé l’histoire du plan et sa résistance, nous analysons la dynamique du discours pro et anti-barrage au fil du temps et constatons que l’ombre du passé (lutte et guerres anticoloniales et anti-apartheid) résonne fortement.


4 Responses

  1. Thank you Richard and Jeroen.

    The change of discourse was it the chief only or from your research were there other people who sided with the chief?

    In the communities counter-narrative did they also draw upon the negative consequences on local communities such as the Kariba Dam experiences?

    1. Dear Everisto,

      Thank you very much for the comment. If memory serves me correct, there was a handful of members that sided with Chief Kapika. However, that he had been replaced by a relative shows to me that not the entire community was happy with his decision.

      During the Epipa debate in the 1990s and early 2000s, the International Rivers Network and the OvaHimba did, in their submissions before the World Commission on dams mentioned other experiences, and again if memory serves correct, the Kariba Dam saga was one of them.

      Kind regards,


  2. Thanks for the insightful but sad story. Indeed mental models and perceptions are key for governance, and certainly not stable. I write this on the day that Donald J Trump made a 180 degree turn on the issue of wearing masks and now call it patriotic. So are those who can influence the narrative most likely benefit in a conflict situation? What is the influence of social media, and has social media played a role in this dam project?

  3. Dear Marco,

    Thank you very much for your questions. During the Epupa Debate debate in the 1990s and early 2000s, social media, especially Internet websites as channels of communication did play a role. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. The main media communication channel by the interest groups was indeed the Internet. They posted everything on their websites and one could easily navigate from one website to the other via links created in documents. I came to the conclusion in my earlier research that had it not been for the Internet, the plight of the OvaHimba would not have been so visible. The Internet also ‘shrunk’ the communication channels between the OvaHimba and other interest groups and between them and the government. With the Baynes project, the social media exposure around the dam shrunk considerably, compared to what happened during the Epupa debate. So, the OvaHimba and OvaZemba resorted, this time around, to more traditional forms of voicing their concerns, such as protest marches. It would be interesting to see to what extent the OvaHimba and OvaZemba uses social media channels, like Twitter, in far flung Kaokoland to communicate and raise concerns.

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