Asking the local Himba people where on the Cunene River in northern Namibia they would choose to site a hydroelectric dam "is like asking me which of my three children do you want me to kill", a Himba elder told IRIN.
In the event, the announcement by President Hifikepunye Pohamba late last year that construction on "the Baynes hydropower project [on the Cunene River] as soon as possible", was made without consulting the Himba, stirring simmering tensions over land ownership and ethnic chauvinism that first rose to the surface in the 1990s, when the ruling South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) government attempted, but failed, to construct a dam at Epupa Falls.
About 25,000 Himba live in the arid regions of southern Angola and northwestern Namibia, straddling the Cunene River, which is central to the Himba's existence and their continued survival as a homogenous people. The river rises at Nova Lisboa in Angola's central highlands near the city of Huambo and flows 700km south before turning west to demarcate part of the Angolan/Namibian border for its last 340km or so before spilling into the Atlantic.
In the successful resistance mounted by the Himba to thwart construction of the dam at Epupa Falls, the Himba's main protagonist, Chief Hikuminue Kapika, travelled to the donor countries of Germany, Sweden, Norway and England to drum up support for their cause. The result was a steep learning curve on the impact of such construction projects on a pastoralist economy reliant on the delicate management of one of the continent's last remaining wildernesses.
A feasibility study accompanying the proposal to build the dam at Epupa Falls cited the Baynes Mountains as an alternative site for the hydroelectric plant, which would substantially reduce the impact on the Himba's cultural heritage. However, Tako Hunga, a Himba elder, told IRIN that "We never agreed [to a dam on the Cunene] and we will never agree; we will never allow the government to do this."
At a temporary bush camp about 100km south of Epupa Falls, where hundreds of Himba were gathering for a funeral in temperatures slightly shy of 40 degrees Celsius, Mutjinduika Mutambo, another Himba elder, explained the significance of the river to an IRIN reporter: "As we are sitting here under the shade of a mopane tree, the Cunene is for us a big tree to which we can go when it is hot, for ourselves and for our animals - that is the beauty of it."
The government's keenness to build a hydro-electric scheme at Baynes Mountains, about 30km downstream from Epupa Falls, is a reflection of prevailing energy requirements, both nationally and among the 14-member regional bloc of the Southern African Development Community.
South Africa's growing economy, which contributes up to 25 percent of the continent's GDP, is suffering regular power cuts as demand outstrips supply: the oil-based economy of Angola, the world's fastest growing economy in 2007, also requires energy for the reconstruction of its infrastructure, apart from the energy requirements of other SADC countries experiencing high growth rates.
President Pohamba announced the government's intention to build a hydroelectric scheme in the Baynes Mountains after a two-day state visit by Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, late last year.
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The Ruacana hydroelectric scheme, on the Cunene River bordering Angola in the northwest, is Namibia's primary source of energy, excluding energy imports from South Africa. The Cunene is essentially a desert river fed by seasonal rains, making electricity generation impossible in times of drought because water volumes are highly variable and can differ as much as 14-fold from year to year, according to the ecology group, Birdlife International.
The Epupa dam's US$5 million feasibility study in the 1990s considered the Baynes site a more expensive option owing to its inaccessibility and the cost of constructing a 200m high dam wall. The total cost of the proposed Epupa Dam at the time was estimated at about US$1 billion.
Building a series of dams along the 1,050km long Cunene River was first conceived by the German colonial government of present day Namibia at the turn of the 19th century. But it was left to the Portuguese colonial government of Angola and apartheid South Africa to begin realising the concept.
Civil wars and liberation conflicts in Angola and Namibia delayed the planned network of dams along the Cunene, but peace in the region could see the last piece of the dam jigsaw, along some of the world's most unique eco-systems, finally slide into place.
The Cunene River is ideally suited for hydroelectric schemes because its steep descent has formed cataracts and gorges. The Gove Dam, the first along its course, captures the mountain waters and was designed as a containment dam to ensure a constant flow of water in the river.
Lower down, close to the Namibian border, is the Calueque Dam, which acts as a barrier for the Ruacana hydroelectric scheme and provides irrigation to farms in northern Namibia's Ovamboland region.
According to a report by Namibia's Legal Resource Centre (LRC), Namibia favoured the Epupa Falls Dam, as it would have held 11.5 billion cubic metres of water, while the Baynes location would create a reservoir of only 2.6 billion cubic metres and make consistent hydroelectric operations dependent on the upstream release of water from Angola.
A sense of betrayal
Pohamba's unexpected announcement, made without consulting the Himba, has rekindled the sense of betrayal felt by them towards the ruling SWAPO government when, soon after independence in 1990, the then president, Sam Nujoma, announced plans to dam Epupa Falls.
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The breakdown in trust between the Himba and SWAPO occurred after an initial meeting between the Himba and the state utility, Nampower, during which the power company gave the impression that the Epupa Falls project would be a small livestock dam - "in other words, the only concept of a dam that they [the Himba] were familiar with", the LRC report noted.
"The crucial issue of the inundation area [380 square kilometres] was either not addressed or misrepresented. It was accordingly left to the social scientists attached to the feasibility study to inform the Himba about the size of the dam, the inundation area and other important impacts. Not surprisingly, the Himba considered that Nampower and the government had tried to trick them into agreeing to the project," the LRC report said.
Tribal elder Hunga said President Pohamba's revival of the dam proposal on the Cunene, and the Himba not receiving the courtesy of being informed of it, was because the government viewed the Himba as "nothing".
"As we are, we are weak - I think this is why the government wants to build a dam without consulting us, because they think we are nothing," said Hunga. "They think they can just construct a dam without asking permission."
The Himba are adamant that the Kaokoveld territory belongs to them through their unbroken occupation of the land over the last few hundred years. But it is a belief at odds with the SWAPO government, which views the state as the owner of what is regarded as communal land, on behalf of all Namibians.
Whose land is it?
"You see that road to Epupa," Chief Kapika said, pointing to a dust trail hanging in the air long after a solitary car had passed, "it is really a disaster. Because if you kill my trees, you kill my cattle, and so you kill me, as I will have no means to survive. We live by nature, we live by our animals and our animals live by trees."
The Himba's resistance to the Epupa Falls Dam centred around the loss of gravesites and the destruction of 6,000 palm trees, the source of omarrunga nuts, a key food reserve during times of drought.
This time the Himba recognise that the road systems and the large labour force required for the dam project will be a direct threat to their existence. Kapika said it was not just about the size of the labour force, but that for every one labourer that came, "maybe he will bring 50 to 100 others looking for work ... and a lot of our cattle will be stolen."
According to feasibility study for the proposed Epupa Dam, a dam at Baynes would flood about 57 square kilometres but its remoteness would entail the construction of a road system; once completed the area would attract tourists, amenities to cater for them, and cruising and fishing boats similar to resorts on Zimbabwe's Kariba Dam.
An uneasy relationship
The Himba's striking appearance and the women's practice of rubbing ochre onto their bodies, ornately decorated with jewellery, is just one of the many contrasts with their neighbours, the Ovambo, SWAPO's main political support base.
Their respective environments are also at odds with each other. The Kaokoveld, with one of the world's lowest population densities, consists of mountains formed from ancient Precambrian rocks and is home to about 20,000 Himbas; Ovamboland is flat, with alluvial soils, and contains about half of Namibia's two million people, although it covers less than five percent of the country.
Historically the Ovambo and the Himba have maintained an arm's-length relationship, but the legacy of Namibia's 23-year war of independence was the creation of sharp schisms between the two peoples.
The majority of soldiers in SWAPO's military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia, were drawn from the Ovambo people, and Ovamboland was the fulcrum of both resistance and South Africa's war in Namibia in the apartheid era.
The war in Kaokoland was less intense, and the Himba adopted a position of neutrality. Today, their party political allegiance rests largely with the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, the country's main opposition party, which had historically supported apartheid South Africa's occupation of Namibia.
"The country is free and independent," said Vahenunu Tjituauna, a Himba tribal elder. "However, Chief Kapika was born here and we are his people; we elected him as our representative but the government does not recognise him. Why? Because they think he is nothing, so that they can do whatever they want."
The impact of HIV/AIDS
According to UNAIDS, about 19.6 percent of Namibians aged between 15 and 49 are infected with HIV, but the infection rate among the Himba is thought to be less than half the national average, a relatively low rate that is attributed to the Himba's homogenous society and its successful pastoralist economy.
"We will face two deaths," Kapika said if the dam at Baynes is built. "First the ownership of our land will be taken away and second we will succumb to diseases like HIV/AIDS, because we will have no means, and will only be able to sell our bodies to survive."
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Henry Muhimba, the Cunene regional head of the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Ombetja Yehinga, based in Opuwa, said it was likely that the construction of a dam would increase HIV infection rates, as truck drivers would probably trade sexual favours with the Himba, in exchange for transport.
An end to the Himba?
For the Himba the splendid isolation that was their security has gradually been eroded over the years, but the encroachment of a cash society has also served as a window to view the dangers of such a society.
For the Himba, a visit to Opuwa is also an education in the uses of electricity. "Electricity leads to alcohol, because it leads to a fridge to cool the beer and people are thinking about cold beer, they are no longer thinking about their cattle anymore," Mutambo said.
"The more you visit towns the more you realise the lessons of the town and learn not what to do. Although there are temptations and sometimes people do fall for them, you learn what not to do when visiting the town," he said.
The concerns that Himba society is slowly being corroded by the temptations of western clothing and the greater prevalence of alcohol is leading to genuine fears among the tribal elders that "we will not have another generation like us again."
"We don't like western clothes, we want to preserve our traditions. We want to be who we are. We are not suffering. We are happy with ourselves," Kapika said.