VICTORIA FALLS — Companies engaged in white water rafting downstream of the Victoria Falls are wary of the proposed US$4 billion Batoka Gorge hydroelectric power scheme which they fear would drive them out of business.
White water rafting sport experts believe that the project would significantly reduce their circle of activity from nine months to only three months per year.
Currently white water rafting, which takes place on rapids along the course of the mighty Zambezi River is suspended for three months in a year when the river waters rise to dangerous levels for the sport, which attracts an average of 1 000 people per month basing on off peak figures where an average of 40 clients are handled per day.
During peak periods, such as the festive season, an average of 100 clients per day partake in the activity.
The Rafting Association of Zimbabwe (RAZ) is concerned that creating a barrier to obstruct the flow of water (damming) at Batoka Gorge as proposed would increase water levels upstream, thereby drastically reducing the water rafting period.
RAZ suspended rafting activities for the season in Victoria Falls last week because the volume of water flowing through the gorges had risen above the safe point of 1 450mm.
Once the Batoka Hydro-Electric Scheme is implemented, the rising Batoka Dam water would force the rapids to disappear, thus killing the sport.
Construction is set to start next year.
The Batoka project has been on the cards for decades.
Nonetheless, it is only now that operators have signaled their intention to fight tooth and nail to halt the damming of the river.
RAZ chairman, Skinner Ndlovu, said after completion of the dam, rafting activities would be confined to rapids 1-11 or even less because all the other rapids downstream would be flooded.
“We discussed with them in some meetings and what came out is that we will be able to do rafting up to rapid number 11. That will mean three months of rafting only as opposed to the current nine months per year,” said Ndlovu.
He said implementers of the project were not clear as yet on the extent of flooding thereby making it difficult for operators to plan for the future.
“At the moment, they have clarified on how far the push back will go, but one thing for sure is that the rafting season will be shortened and confined to low season months when water is low, and that is loss of business,” he said.
Engineers have said the dam wall would be 180 metres high and anything above that would result in the entire stretch of river up to the Victoria Falls being flooded, effectively taking away the world famous thunder out of the Victoria Falls.
Another operator, Philani Moyo, said damming the Zambezi River will negatively affect tourism arrivals into Victoria Falls because the resort town has the world’s best gorges for white water rafting.
“This Batoka will seriously affect us. We have done petitions calling for the project to be stopped and we are still engaging. This is an iconic activity because Victoria Falls is the world’s number one river in terms of rafting ahead of others such as Colorado in USA or those in Uganda and Chile because the water is clean while the gorges themselves are safe from any fatalities as evidenced by the clean record that we have as operators,” said Moyo, with 23 years of experience in water rafting on 45 world rivers.
“Besides affecting business, this will have environmental implications as our children will no longer view the gorges which will be submerged in water. I think our leaders should take a leaf from other countries like the USA where damming of the Colorado River has been stopped because of its negative (environmental) effects,” he added.
The fate of white water rafting took centre-stage at a recent Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme investors’ conference in Livingstone, Zambia where the Zambezi River Authority, an institution tasked by the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments to oversee the construction of the 2 400 megawatt project sought to seek funding from investors.
Delegates had mixed feelings about the fate of rafting, with some saying the issue has to be handled carefully because it had the potential of derailing the whole power project.
“White water rafting is an iconic activity, which we should not underrate. You need to manage the situation carefully because there are still a lot of issues that need to be dealt with so that you are not found wanting,” said a contributor from Ernst and Young, one of the project’s advisors.
Another contributor said: “This is a good project that makes economic sense with no negative social impact. The only activity that will be affected is rafting, but that’s seasonal and can still be done because there are several small gorges where they can do it.”
ZRA chief executive officer, Munyaradzi Munodawafa, said the river authority awaits completion of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) whose revision was funded by the World Bank to the tune of US$7,2 million.
He conceded ZRA was being cautious about the issue until the reports are out.
“The inclusion of water and environment ministers from the two countries will definitely deal with such issues and at the moment we have three consultants that are on the ground carrying out EIAs. As ZRA, we want to do everything right before we start construction which is why we are waiting for the reports so we come out clear,” Munodawafa told a delegation of potential investors on a tour of the project site.
There are four companies that do white water rafting activities in Victoria Falls namely Shearwater Adventures, Shockwave Safaris, Wild Horizon and Adventure Zone while Khanondo Safaris is licensed, but not offering the services.
Zimbabwean companies have a lion’s share of clients compared to their counterparts in Zambia where each client pays an average of US$170 to sail the river and the scale has been tilting in favour of Zimbabwe since the introduction of the Kaza-Uni Visa.