Swaziland's new Maguga dam, with its promise of regional benefits, is not merely the largest public works project in this tiny African kingdom's history. It seems a throwback to a time when dams were erected as an automatic answer to myriad problems.
In the days before environmental assessments, any potential negative impact was either unknown or dismissed in the name of "progress". The Maguga, a South African-Swaziland joint venture in the northwest of the country, carries with it that type of old-fashion optimism in a nation that is desperate to combat the twined problems of unemployment and poverty.
Along the way, if Swaziland's energy dependence on air-polluting fossil fuel generating plants in neighbouring countries is lessened, and irrigation water is made available to modernise peasant farmer's age-old dependence on rain water for their crops, then so much the better.
Swaziland is threaded by rivers and streams. But no visionary plans to harvest these for irrigation projects or hydroelectric generation emerged until South Africa proposed the Komati River Accord, a treaty that regulates the use of the main northern river that enters Swaziland from South Africa, meanders around the Hhohho Region, and flows back into South Africa southeast of Kruger National Park at the border village Mananga.
The partnership with South Africa allowed Swaziland to raise capital for the dam, after satisfying international lending organisations of the project's environmental soundness. The government was also able to ensure the lenders that the dam was more than a construction project, and sustainable development would result.
"The dam was proposed in the 1990s, not the 1960s, and we are a lot more sophisticated about blocking a river and flooding an ecosystem," said a source as the Komati Basin Water Authority, which supervised the project. "Social and cultural impact had to be considered, too."
Ancestral graves were moved, sports facilities were constructed for local youth, homesteads were relocated with less fuss than that which usually accompanies the construction of national highways, and a colony of workers' homes were sold to Swazis when they were vacated, to help alleviate a housing shortage in the area. Rare pink and yellow Crassula wildflowers were transplanted out of the zone of inundation.
"Something had to be done to boost the economy of a region where the number one cash crop is marijuana, which is illegal, and where there is no industry or tourism," said Hhohho Regional Administrator Ben Nsibandze. His nephews plan a recreational and fishing boat rental business for visitors to the 1042-hectare fresh water lake that will fill the valley behind the 870 metre-long dam.
The ministry of enterprise and employment is drawing unemployed youth to seminars explaining how to set up tourism-oriented businesses that do no environmental harm, like hiking, adventure and cultural tourism, and leading excursions to prehistoric cave drawings in the surrounding hills.
Rising 115 metres, the dam when completely filled has a storage capacity of 332 million square metres of water. Earlier efforts in Africa like Egypt's Aswan dam were studied to avoid a repetition of their mistakes. Maguga dam is only the fourth largest in the southern Africa region (South Africa has the three largest dams), but it will be more efficient.
For two years, earthmoving equipment has excavated a deep gorge, to minimise the lake's surface area in relation to its volume of water. With a relatively small surface area, the lake will lose less of its stored volume to evaporation than that suffered by the larger dams. As a result, a shorter stretch of the Komati had to be flooded.
"The dam's main claim to fame as far as sustainable development is concerned is to provide a reliable source of irrigation water to the big agricultural concerns, especially the timber and sugar estates, and the small farmers who are forming cooperatives," said agriculture field officer Joe Khumalo.
"We've been conducting workshops in the Lubombo District 200 km downstream, on the other side of the country, where it is parched and much of the Maguga's water will be directed. This water will allow small land holder farmers to give up the single crop tradition of maize to grow cash crops like tomatoes for export," he added.
Sixty-percent of the dam's water has been guaranteed to South Africa by the 1992 Komati River Basin Accord. That still leaves ample irrigation water for use in a country where two-thirds of the people live under chiefs in small landholder family farms, raising the staple food, maize without use of irrigation. "Two-thirds of Swazi also live below the poverty line," said Khumalo. "There is a correlation here."
Currently, Swaziland imports 90 percent of its electrical power from South Africa, primarily generated from coal burning power plants. The coal comes from Swaziland, whose entire production is sold to South African industry. Other than coal, Swaziland's once-thriving mining sector is dormant, though the Maguga dam construction did provide a temporary boost by creating a demand for 150,000 cubic mt of crushed stone.
In an interview, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said: "The Maguga dam has the potential of meeting 50 percent of Swaziland's electricity needs. It is also possible to export power through a new regional 400 kV line as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo."
King Mswati is expected to cut the ribbon and send water cascading down the dam's front sluice in time for the farmers' cooperatives to plant their first tomatoes of this year's cropping season.