Orange River under threat

The Orange River is a vital element and source of water for so many communities in the arid areas of our country. Canoeing South Africa Environmental Officer Samantha Braid brought a disturbing  issue to CSA’s General Manager Colin Simpkins attention.

“Development on the rivers needs to be done in a responsible and coordinated manner. We are now up to eight hydropower plant applications on sections of the Orange River below Vanderkloof Dam,” she said.

The entire issue was brought to her attention by the owners of Gravity Adventures. Marie-Louise Kellett explains the extent of the problem in a mail to Samantha:

Some of you have met me, some have not. Some of you are already familiar with the issues I am raising and we are already talking. This mail is to try and take our discussions to a more formal level and to involve others. I coordinate the African Paddling Association’s Environmental Working Group and I would like to ask you all to read this mail and get back to me with your thoughts. Please also feel free to spread the word as widely as possible.

The Orange River runs like a green thread across southern Africa, linking diverse climates, countries and people and sustaining life across our sub-continent. It is the biggest river in a region known for its aridity and desert landscapes and provides a lifeline for many. Rising in the snowy highlands of Lesotho as the Senqu, it winds its way through the deep gorges of the mountain kingdom before entering the grasslands of South Africa. From there it cuts across country, collecting tributaries until it enters the dry Kalahari and forms a border with Namibia before emptying its load of silt and diamonds into the sea at Oranjemund. Much has been written about this awesome river, many legends have been passed on from generation to generation and through it all, the river has continued to flow, adjusting to the huge dams built to control its waters and to the litter and pollution provided by the human settlements on its banks. Its lower reaches have always provided a sanctuary from all of this – the river has remained free flowing and clean and the surrounding areas are wild and remote. And yet, only 10% of this mighty river is remains pristine wilderness, including its two mightiest waterfalls, the Augrabies Falls and the lesser known but equally impressive Richie Falls. Now, this is all under threat and we need to work together to protect it. This river belongs to all of the people of the sub-continent and it is threatened by profit seeking developers and their backers.

Here is a brief summary of the projects currently happening or in the planning stages and a comment on the likely impacts. These are just the ones that I am personally aware of.

Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme: Phase 2 has just started which includes a major dam on the Senqu.

Various weirs are being built along the course of the river, as far down as Riemvasmaak and Vioolsdrif, in the name of ‘flood control’ as part of the LHWS, most seem to go up with no notification to the surrounding communities and most are dangerous to people and wildlife, especially indigenous fish.

Rooikat ‘Small’ Hydro Power Station near Douglas, Northern Cape: this will inundate bushman paintings, a future lodge site and drown ‘Thunder Alley’ a legendary section of whitewater and the basis for rafting operations in the area. The Scoping phase has ended.

Augrabies Falls Hydro Power Station: the plan here is to divert most of the river from the falls, reducing them to a trickle and channel the water through concrete canals to power turbines to generate electricity. This will take place in and adjacent to the National Park and planning is already far advanced – the EIA has already been concluded. The impact on tourism and sense of place will be significant.

Richie Falls (Orange Falls) Hydro Power Station: this is absolutely pristine wilderness, there is almost no human impact at all as there is no road access. The Richie Falls are the second highest falls on the river after Augrabies and the area includes the beautiful Orange Gorge. The plan here is to build a massive road, construct concrete weirs across the whole river and divert most of the water away from the gorge and the falls and into a concrete canal to drive turbines. The electricity generated will be sold to Namibia and the few jobs that are created during the construction period will go to Namibians. Impacts on the siltation cycle, the ecology, ecotourism in the area and of course the sense of place will be hugely negative. This project is nearing the end of the Scoping phase.

The above two projects are being driven by the same company – a consortium between the Tasmanian Government and a South African company.

Vioolsdrif Dam: this is a water storage dam and has been on the cards for many years.

As you can see, some of the above projects would be disastrous ion their own, but together, the cumulative effects are just not known. What is for sure is that, forgiving as the river is, a point will come when the impacts become too much and then it will too late – our wilderness areas will all be gone and it will too late to do anything about it.

This is an invitation to all of you to work together towards two aims;

1. To  campaign to government for a moratorium on all dams, hydro schemes and weirs on the Orange until a comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment has been done on the entire river and surrounding areas, from source to sea.
2. To motivate for legislation that identifies certain ‘wild and scenic’ places that should never be developed
The International Day of Action for Rivers is coming up on March 22 and I would like to suggest we launch a campaign to coincide with that. Please let me know if you are open to working together on this issue.

If you want to get involved in the initiative then you can email, either Samantha at sam.braid.22@gmail.com or phone her on 082 899 2220 or email Marie-Louis at andrew@gravity.co.za

A petition is going around for people that want to sign it in order to prevent this from happening!! Follow the link here to get involved