Can dams and cranes co-exist? This is a central question to ICF’s work along the Zambezi River, where both human communities and cranes depend on the mighty river’s annual flood cycles.
ICF In Action
Through this research we learned how the Wattled Crane’s life cycle is tied to the cycles of the Zambezi: how the annual spread and recession of floodwaters triggers production of the underground plant tubers that the cranes almost exclusively feed on, how failed floods fuel the wildfires that destroy their nests, and how mis-timed floodwaters wash out eggs and chicks.
As we broadened our studies, we sought to understand how these hydrological changes resulting from the dams affect a wider circle of species and ecological processes. A litany of ecological impacts emerged: loss of feeding grounds for many wildlife species, such as the rare Kafue lechwe (below), spread of damaging fires and invasive species, falling water tables with drying of lakes and wetlands, erosion of river banks and coastal shores, and salinization of soils.
Realizing that many of the dams’ impacts were as grave for people as for wildlife, we further expanded our investigation to local residents and how changes in water cycles were affecting their lives. We learned how these same changes were harming agriculture, fisheries, grazing lands, and almost every aspect of how people use water for their daily needs.
The Way Forward
Many important discoveries emerged from this work. First, the needs of people, cranes, and many other species of plants and animals are quite similar. Second, immediate improvements downstream could be made with modest reductions in hydropower production, especially through the cooperative management of Zambezi dams. Third, the economic value of releasing some water to downstream users outweighs its value when used solely for hydropower and upstream supply. And fourth, by releasing more natural flows in the early wet season, the dams increased their capacity to store damaging floods that may occur late in the wet season.
Our vision now is for the river operators themselves to take ownership of this process. We have joined forces with the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy, the UNESCO Institute for Water Education, and the national universities of Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Our partnership supports Zambezi River basin managers in realizing their goals for improved water management. What began as an effort to help an endangered population of cranes has scaled-up through time to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our times: to manage rivers for biodiversity, human livelihoods and economic development.
“What began as an effort to help an endangered population of cranes has scaled-up through time to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our times: to manage rivers for biodiversity, human livelihoods and economic development.”