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Zambia Mulls a Congo Canal. Experts Say Don’t Even Try It

Matthew Hill and Taonga Clifford Mitimingi

(Bloomberg) -- Drought-riven Zambia plans to build canals from the Congo river in its northern neighbor to supply water and electricity. It will never work, say experts.

Water levels have plunged for the second time in three years in the Kariba dam, which feeds off the Zambezi river and provides both Zambia and Zimbabwe with electricity. That’s sparked fears that the two nation’s hydropower turbines may have to switch off completely if levels continue to fall at what is the world’s biggest man-made freshwater reservoir.

The Congo river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the continent’s second longest, could hold the solution, according to Matthew Nkhuwa, Zambia’s energy minister.

“We are looking at the possibilities of tapping water from the Congo river to the source of the Zambezi,” Nkhuwa said by phone from Lusaka, the capital. “If we can just dig canals and get the water from there, with the permission from the head of state of Congo, it will benefit both Zambia and it will also benefit Zimbabwe.”

Experts are skeptical. Even if the heads of state of the three countries agree to the idea, the plan will probably never be realized, according to Arthur Chapman, associate at University of Stellenbosch’s Institute for Futures Research in South Africa.

While the Zambezi’s source, which lies in the far north-west corner of Zambia, is almost on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s still more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Congo river.

‘Not Feasible’

The Zambezi is also more elevated than the Congo river, said Chapman, a hydrologist who’s published a study on the impact of climate change on the Zambezi’s hydropower production.

“Canals are absolutely not feasible. I have no idea what the relevant minister could be thinking,” he said in reply to emailed questions. “There are no places in which one could get the Congo river to flow downhill.”

Large parts of the Zambezi’s catchment area in southern and western Zambia received their lowest rainfall since at least 1981 during the 2018-19 wet season, according to the Southern African Development Community. Kariba’s water level has dropped to 22% of capacity, from 84% a year ago. Zimbabwe and Zambia are suffering rolling power blackouts lasting hours each day because of the depleting reservoir.

It’s the second severe drought this decade to hit Kariba’s electricity production, with the dam falling to 11% of capacity three years ago. The government has blamed climate change for the lack of rain, which also hurt farming output. The International Monetary Fund cited the drought as a reason for cutting its economic growth forecast for Zambia to 2% this year, the lowest this millennium.

Nkhuwa is optimistic the proposed canals from the Congo will be built.

“We think that this is something that can be done very very quickly, and at a cheaper price than having to put up a power plant,” he said, without giving an estimate as to how much the undertaking may cost. “I think that can be achieved within two, three months.”

(Updates with daily power blackouts in the third paragraph under ‘Not Feasible’ subheadline)

To contact the reporters on this story: Matthew Hill in Maputo at mhill58@bloomberg.net;Taonga Clifford Mitimingi in Lusaka at tmitimingi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net, Pauline Bax, Gordon Bell

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