Power, fish and tourism: Zambia and Zim reel as Kariba water levels fall to record lows below 1%

Water levels at Kariba dam plunged to a record low of less than 1%, curtailing power supply to Zambia and Zimbabwe and shuttering the tourism and fishing industries.

The world’s largest man-made dam based on water-storage capacity had 0.97% usable storage on Dec. 28, compared with 20% a year earlier, according to data available on the Zambezi River Authority’s website. That’s less than the previous low set almost three decades ago. Normally, water levels start rising in January.

Zambia began power rationing on Tuesday because of the critical low levels. 

Zimbabweans have been subjected to 19 hours of power outages a day, because there is insufficient water in the Kariba dam to drive the nation’s main hydropower plant. 

The cuts only eased over the festive season due to reduced demand from industry, which usually closes for its annual shutdown over the period.

Kariba, which has a total installed capacity of 2,130MW split between the two nations, is currently limited to power output of about 300 megawatts for each country due to the water-supply constraints.

ZESCO, Zambia’s power utility, said in a statement on Wednesday that it is doubling the length of power cuts to 12 hours. 

“The Corporation’s ability to meet power demand remains constrained by the drastic reduction in available water in the Kariba reserviour for electricity generation at Kariba North Bank Power Station. At present, the power station’s generating capacity has been reduced from its installed 1080MW to below 400MW,” ZESCO said. 

“Furthermore, the 150MW generator outage at Maamba Collieries Limited Power Plant for routine annual maintenance from 4 January until 20 January 2023 has exacerbated the situation.”

Kapenta Shortages

Also reeling from the low water levels are the tourism and fishing industries. Kariba dam is a popular destination for catching tiger fish and bream. It’s also an abundant source of kapenta, an affordable protein for many people in Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.

“The kapenta fishing industry is now experiencing low catches,” George Masendu, a councilor at Kariba, in Zimbabwe, said on Tuesday. 

The low catches have translated into reduced stocks being supplied to retail outlets across the nation, including at OK Zimbabwe, he said.

“It’s how we survive, this has an impact on livelihoods,” he said. “After the tourism sector, kapenta is the second biggest industry in Kariba.” 

The shortage is likely to fuel inflation and leave low-income households with few options for sources of protein. The fish is cheaper than beef and chicken.

Bloomberg (additional reporting by newZWire)