Cornerstone Course – Day 3: Water use case study

A case study about the Zambezi river basin. There a several big flood planes (wetlands each the size of Switzerland). It also includes Lake Malawi and there are 2 large dams (colonial heritage) for energy generation.

Half of the basin is highland above 1000m, the other half falls towards the sea. Temperature is constant up to the delta. The weather is tropical in the North and more arid in the South. 11 sub-basins form the ecological system. The upper basins have have a flood cycle whereas the lower parts have a constant flow due to the dams.

Population is distributed unevenly with the headwaters nearly empty and high population in large cities (Lusaka and Harare) and Malawi. Agricultural potential is high in the headwaters. Additionally Malawi and Zimbabwe have potential areas.

Currently there are plans to build 4 additional dams in the range of 1 GW (similar to nuclear power plants).

A marginal value of water can be computed for hydro-power. The higher parts have a higher marginal value which would compete with agriculture and hence agriculture would need to be very efficient. However, concerns of food security trump economical concerns.

Tourism plays another factor as they wish to see pristine nature and dams have shown to decrease the population of many wild animals (e.g. the Lechwe antelopes reduces by nearly 2/3).


Victoria Falls bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia and already has some tourism infrastructure. Focused on luxury tourists from the West. Botswana profits through tourists coming to the national parks after visiting the falls. There is a special visa to get into this tourism area.

Lake Malawi is situated inside Malawi and is close to Tanzania. Pristine beaches and aquatic tourism (snorkeling, scuba-diving, sailing, etc.). Beach tourism is a possible development.

There seems to be a conflict potential between Lake Malawi and Victoria Falls.


Effects on (downstream) neighbors

Effect on ecological system (Barotse Floodplain, Kafue Flats, Lake Malawi, Delta)

Mining seems to be more stable than tourism fluctuation, but it causes dependence on foreign development. This dependence constitutes a loss of control. For instance, Zambia accuses Glencore in the courts for pollution of the water in the copper mines.

Coal (Mozambique) not discussed

Agriculture and Hyrdo-power

Sugar plane plantation in the Kafue flats are feeding the capital Lusaka and potentially damage the ecosystem as well as reduce water flow to down-stream power-generation.

Other agricultural projects are currently under consideration and conflict potentially with upcoming power-generation projects.

Agricultural projects in Zambia and Zimbabwe conflict with power-generation plans in Mozambique. Malawi has all agricultural and power-generation projects within its borders and can therefore balance the different needs internally.

A cooperative power-generation project between Tanzania and Malawi on the inflow of Lake Malawi has the potential to knit together neighbors.

Agricultural developments in the Barotse Floodplain have the potential to turn into Zambia’s corn chamber, but could drain water resources downstream to unacceptable levels endangering, tourism, power-generation and mining. Such a development could cause conflict between Zambia and its neighbours Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Additionally, it could have a tremendous effects on ecosystem of the floodplain.

Treaties between countries could ease conflicts and international players could nudge them (e.g. Worldbank, IMF, etc.).