Binational organisation the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) has reiterated and clarified its Covid-19-impacted stakeholder engagement process amid preparations to start building the multibillion-dollar 2 400 MW Batoka Gorge hydropower project on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The cross-border hydroelectric facility is expected to produce 10 215 GWh/y of electricity, which will be shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is envisioned that the project will be completed in 2026, after starting construction in mid-2022.
The ZRA explains that the authority’s consultants Environmental Resources Management (ERM) carried out an environmental- and social-impact assessment (Esia) for the project, after which disclosure meetings were held with different stakeholder groups in the two countries.
In light of the Covid-19 outbreak and having to keep people as safe as possible, engagement methods with stakeholders included virtual and in-person meetings, as guided by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency and the Environmental Management Agency of Zimbabwe.
The ZRA reports that stakeholders had a chance to express themselves and their concerns were documented. Thereafter, a draft Esia report was released for comment on March 3, 2020, and the public was given until January 25 this year to submit any concerns and comments regarding the planned implementation of the project.
During the disclosure process, which took the form of limited physical meetings, webinars and radio broadcasts, the ZRA and ERM highlighted the project scope, benefits and also echoed the mitigation measures being undertaken to curtail any adverse project impacts.
The proposed mitigation procedures include limiting the dam height to 175 m to prevent the backflow of water from reaching areas of special interest, such as Victoria Falls and national parks.
Other measures include preparing livelihood restoration plans for the project components in respect of which it was established that households may experience economic displacement – with the plan ensuring that they are adequately compensated.
Specifically, more stakeholder engagements will be held for the livelihood restoration planning aspect of the project.
The ZRA says the stakeholder engagement approach included ERM and ZRA hosting four separate webinars with different stakeholders group, from white water rafters to government departments and special interest groups; ERM and the authority presenting six radio broadcasts on local radio stations to further share Esia findings with communities; and a few in-person meetings with district and traditional authorities, or leaders, in small groups.
The authority assures stakeholders that construction of the Batoka project has not yet started, as there are prerequisites that still need to be exhausted, including the submission of a final Esia report.
It acknowledges that there are, however, some pre-construction activities happening on site on both sides of the Zambezi river, "but these should not be viewed as actual dam construction activities".
These works employed 100 local people and was expected to come to an end by January 31.