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Chance to prevent natural disaster at Kariba dam

The Kariba dam on the Zambezi river could burst in the near future
The Kariba dam on the Zambezi river could burst in the near future

Though disasters are usually unavoidable and difficult to predict, an overfilled dam on the Zambezi river is an exception to this rule.

The Kariba dam is situated on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and was built over 50 years ago to provide electricity to the region. The reservoir that has been created covers over 2,000 square miles and is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. However, Irin news reports that there are fears about the safety of the dam and the potential risk that it could burst in the near future.

In early March engineers warned that the dam's foundations were severely eroded from decades of use, weakening the entire dam wall. Additionally, the reservoir is storing nine times as much water as was planned when the dam was first built, which is putting further pressure on the weakened structure. It is estimated that a collapse would affect 3.5 million people in a number of countries downstream.

Past, present and future problems

This is not the first dam related disaster that Zimbabwe has faced. This February, water levels at the Tokwe-Mukosi dam in the south east of the country rose to record levels. This has displaced thousands of villagers, who are now struggling to get by in temporary shelters with limited food and medicine. Talking to Irin, Madzudzo Pawadyira, director of the Civil Protection Unit (CPU), says that they have learnt lessons from this disaster and that they are now far more vigilant.

As rains are expected to become increasingly heavy, there are concerns about future crises. Already in 2008, heavy rains led to overloading of the Kariba dam and made it necessary to open the floodgates to relieve pressure. According to the BBC, this displaced almost 100,000 people in Mozambique, and the total collapse of the dam would a have similarly international impact.

The scale of the crisis

If the Kariba dam were to burst, Pawadyira says the water would move rapidly and cover a distance of 150km in less than seven hours. This could wipe out whole villages downstream and would particularly affect the people of Zambia and Mozambique. Not only would it directly affect these communities but it could also have a wider impact, since southern Africa relies on the dam for electricity. Its collapse would have a long lasting impact on livelihoods throughout the region and severely hamper other aid and development initiatives.

Authorities are working together to try to avert disaster, but funding is urgently needed to repair the erosion and prepare to offer relief if needed. The energy ministers of Zimbabwe and Zambia say that major repair works costing $230m are already planned to start in 2015 using funding from the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Union. It is rare that governments get the chance to stop a natural disaster occurring, and they must take this opportunity to avert catastrophe.

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