Comment: Opposing the proposed Hydropower Facilities at the!Gariep or Oranje or Ritchie Falls near Onseepkans, Northern Cape/Namibia.
From: Prof Graeme Addison, owner of The Riverman and pioneer of rafting in South Africa
Due date: 20 January 2104
It is nothing less than scandalous that a developer should propose the diversion of two major waterfalls – the Augrabies and !Gariep Falls – and that environmental law allows for such proposals to be considered at all. The form of cost-benefit analysis encouraged by regulation and standard consultancy practice should in principle be overridden by heritage valuation, before any such proposals see the light of day. The process of research should not even begin. As for the developers who brings forward such schemes, they clearly lack appreciation for the value of exceptional natural landscapes such as the waterfalls, and should be shamed by a public outcry. They should be chased out of the gorge and not allowed to deface any more of our heritage.
I am making it my business, in conjunction with many others, to bring about just such an outcry. My concern here is with the !Gariep Falls but most of what is said applies equally to Augrabies. Whether or not the formal procedures are followed and permission ultimately granted, public pressure must ensure that the constructions do not take place. The voters of South Africa, the media and public representatives must be informed and brought on board to oppose these schemes lock, stock and barrel.
There are absolutely no benefits to be obtained for South Africa from the proposed schemes as the power will be sold to Namibia. There are no real benefits to be gained by the people of Southern Africa from installations which could easily be replaced by more environmentally friendly solar, wind or thermal energy generation. If research is going to be done at all it should be under these topics – particularly as Namibia has both solar and wind energy in abundance.
Meantime, pristine landscapes will be marred for ever and irreplaceable scenic waterways – each of which should be totally out of bounds to developers as a matter of principle – will be ruined. There are three aspects to this that I discuss below:
- Heritage and Spirit of Place
- Destructive river diversions
- Legal and regulatory reform
AFRICAN PADDLING ASSOCIATION
I fully endorse and identify with the comments of the African Paddling Association, submitted by Marie-Louise Kellett of the Environmental Working Group, APA. The case for total opposition to the hydro scheme is made comprehensively on a number of levels from ecological damage to international protocols and is unanswerable. My own comments merely add reasons why the proposals should get no further.
I am a former Professor of Communication and current trainer of journalists and media professionals. I am also the person who, initially as a hobby and then as an entrepreneur, launched South Africa’s first canoeing and rafting operations on South African rivers. The Oranje Gorge route from Onseepkans to the farm Onseep was the first such route, pioneered in 1978-80 and offered to tourists from 1982. The attractions of the !Gariep Falls stamped this route as the premier whitewater rafting trip in the country, comparable in its remoteness, beauty and stunning display of natural power only to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Although I have pursued an academic career, I have continued to run Oranje Gorge trips almost every year for the past three and a half decades during holiday periods.
Since 1982 I estimate that my operation has taken an average of 15 people a year to the Oranje Gorge, totalling perhaps 500 in all. Currently, in the past four years, I have run two to three trips there annually with between 8 and 15 on a trip. My business as a tourism entrepreneur would not suffer seriously if the !Gariep Falls were closed to us, meaning that I do not have a strong material interest in making the comments that are set out here. My main business lies on the Vaal River where trained guides and my son run rafting operations under my supervision.
Despite having no great material stake in the area, all of us – guides and former clients – would feel that the diversion of the Oranje Falls would be a serious blight on the landscape and a grievous loss to the world. Hence, the Spirit of Place is of prime importance in what follows. The support of all our former clients – some of them now senior in corporates, government and civil society organisations – will be sought in the public campaign that needs to happen around this issue.
HERITAGE AND SPIRIT OF PLACE
There is no need to dwell on definitions of heritage and spirit of place. In essence, these terms capture the sense of identification that people feel with historical places and beautiful landscapes, especially if these are in one’s own country. The !Gariep Falls are unfortunately little known because so remote, but are unique in the world due to the boulder-strewn gorge sides over which – and under which – the water flows. There is no comparison to be made with any other falls in the world. Not only a river trail but a hiking trail makes the falls a highlight of any trip. Though tourist numbers are rightly small to preserve the area, the value of these falls is incalculable as one of the great sights of Southern Africa.
The Onseepkans area itself has a fascinating human history of settlement and group of which too little has be written. The Oranje Gorge forms an integral part of the mythology of the area, as local people tell tales of the dreaded river monster that lives in the depths of the gorge.
It is not cost-benefits that should apply in deciding whether the falls must be preserved from any construction or destruction. It is quite simply their value in themselves as an asset to lives and cultures of the whole region, and a reminder of the power of nature.
Given all of this it is simply inconceivable that any government department could permit the go-ahead of a cynical scheme to exploit a public resource for private profit and destroy priceless heritage in the process.
DESTRUCTIVE RIVER DIVERSIONS
Run-of-river water power is no satisfactory alternative to the building of large dams. There is an extensive literature reflecting opposition to run-of-river schemes. The consultants on this Oranje Gorge scheme are surely aware of this literature but if they are not I would be happy to enlighten them.
The term run-of-river is completely misleading as what we are talking about is river diversion out of the normal channel into a sluice and powerhouse. Run-of-river is in fact a propaganda term to conceal the reality of what happens.
In the case of the Oranje Gorge, diagrams show that the normal features of run-of-river hydro construction will be put in place:
- Retaining dam for a headpond
- Pipeline and chute to send water to the turbines
- Powerhouse lower down housing the turbines
- Channel for the tailrace to return water to the river
- Roads, powerlines, and possibly substations
- Housing and amenities for workers
In general what this means is that the existing !Gariep Falls will cease to exist, to be replaced by concrete emplacements and a building, all tied up with roads and transmission lines. The pond above the falls will take water away from the falls and down an industrial chute. The river diversion is complete – from the head pond to the tailrace there is little or no water entering the river in the normal channel at normal times. But times are not always normal on the Orange.
It needs to be drawn to the attention of the developers that they could lose all their money in a trice once the Orange River indulges in one of its huge and fairly regular floods. Once every 10-25 years the Gorge may fill up entirely with flows of between 8000 and 11000 cm3. The installations are likely to be washed away leaving widespread construction wreckage in the formerly pristine gorge. There could be little sympathy for the loss the developers might suffer but the big question would be – who does the clean up? If they are bankrupted by their own folly in challenging in the power of the river they won’t have the cash to remove the debris. This factor alone should prevent any construction taking place. Passing on costs to society should not be what the developers are allowed to do. At the very least they should be forced to deposit millions – say 3 times the estimated costs of a clean-up, with annual top-ups, to cover inflation and the unforeseeable, before undertaking construction. Of course, it should never get to the construction phase anyway, as a matter of principle.
Quite apart from the unsightly appearance of the installations, the noise and disturbances of operations will completely change the character of the area. It will cease to be a wilderness and become an industrial zone.
LEGAL AND REGULATORY REFORM
The only reason these comments have to be written and all of us in civil society have to jump through hoops to prove a case against the developers is that the law itself is an ass. Riding on the back of the ass are the consultants. The law permits any developer to make any proposal regarding any part of the environmental including special natural assets. Nothing is out of bounds.
Having identified a handy waterfall for its nice steep gradient, the developer decides to make money by shutting off the falls. The environmental consultants obediently begin the task of researching the matter, sketching the implications for land and living things, and generally make themselves busy collecting public views. They are paid by the developer so in a sense they are in the developer’s pocket with no remit from the poor public to ensure balance.
I have dealt with similar situations both as a protestor and, in covering for media, from the outside as an observer. One is always left with the feeling that the consultants should be paid out of the public purse, which would probably bring about a big change in objectivity.
That said, it is highly unlikely that the law will be changed to place financial burden on the taxpayer. So we are left with the situation that anything can be proposed and if procedures are properly followed it becomes increasingly difficult to prevent a scheme from going ahead.
The problem with any set of comments like this one, is that the points may well be taken – and used in mitigation of the project. That is, the awful blight goes ahead but a few angles are tweaked to make it look better. Let’s all hope the process has more integrity than that.
The farcical regulatory situation deserves to be highlighted in the public campaign to follow.
CONTACT: GRAEME ADDISON firstname.lastname@example.org 0842452490