In Guinea, environmentalists and locals are divided over the building of a dam near a wildlife park

In Guinea, environmentalists and locals are divided over the building of a dam near a wildlife park

A pirogue on the Bafing River, a tributary of the Senegal River. West Africa’s waterways are the focus of numerous dam building projects promising to supply electricity to the surrounding areas.

(wikicommons )

The people of Tougué, a town and prefecture some 400 kilometres from Guinea’s capital, Conakry, are eagerly awaiting the construction of the Koukoutamba hydroelectric dam. Aside from the employment the project is expected to bring, the 140,000 people living in the district are looking forward to a more reliable electricity supply. The site chosen for the project is the valley of the Bafing River, a tributary of the Senegal River which has its source in the prefecture of Tougué. The Senegal River flows through Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and Guinea before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1972, the four countries created an organisation, the OMVS, charged with the task of using the river to promote cross-border economic development. The organisation is now planning to build its biggest dam to date, in Koukoutamba, where the river has its source.

Estimated to cost over US$812 million, the dam will have the capacity to generate 294 megawatts of power, only a quarter of which will benefit the people of Guinea. The rest will be exported. Besides bringing electricity to the prefecture of Tougué, the project also involves the building of a 150-kilometre road between Labé, the region’s capital, and the dam, via the town of Tougué. According to the project’s promoters, the dam and the works linked to it should also enable the creation of a reservoir that will benefit activities such as agriculture, livestock farming, fishing and navigation, as well as supplying drinking water.

However, on 26 December 2020, two civil society organisations, CECIDE and International Rivers, published a report, which Equal Times has been able to consult, in which they strongly advise against the dam building project. The area is home to the Moyen-Bafing national park, one of the last remaining protected areas for West Africa’s chimpanzees, the wild population of which has fallen by almost 80 per cent in 25 years. A German-based environmental association, Rettet den Regen Wald (Save the Forest), has decided to draw global attention to the threats not only to primates but also to leopards and many plant species. The association has launched an online petition urging the Guinean president, Alpha Condé, to cancel the project.

It has so far gathered almost 192,000 signatures. “As it stands, the project would affect a significant portion of the Moyen-Bafing national park and its ecosystem. That’s the equivalent of 18,000 football fields. The park is home to around 1,500 chimpanzees, which are an endangered species. The reservoir will also involve the displacement of nearly 8,700 people,” explains Ibrahima Khalil Bamba, CECIDE’s project coordinator.

The NGOs are, however, defending more than the chimpanzees. After conducting a study on the project’s social and environmental impacts, they have concluded that the dam could do the people of Guinea more harm than good.

According to CECIDE and International Rivers, Guinea could do without the energy generated by Koukoutamba. “With the completion of the Souapiti dam, Guinea will be able to meet its domestic energy needs for years to come and even export excess electricity to its neighbours. Koukoutamba is not therefore needed to meet Guinea’s energy requirements,” reads the joint statement.

In operation since the end of 2020, the Souapiti dam, one of the region’s largest hydroelectric developments, not far from Conakry, has been criticised by human rights defenders, such as Human Rights Watch, for the eviction and uprooting of nearly 16,000 people, living mainly in small, poor, rural settlements. Although the families are offered alternative housing in other municipalities, the loss of their ancestral lands, their sustenance, is a serious blow to these already fragile communities.

It is for all these reasons that the two organisations felt compelled to sound the alarm, hoping to prevent “an ecological and human catastrophe in the making”. The report warns about the need to stop “the damage that has affected other communities living near hydropower dams in Guinea, such as Souapiti, from happening again in the Koukoutamba area”.

The stakes involved in developing the energy sector

In a country where access to electricity was limited to 29 per cent of households in 2017, and just 3 per cent in rural areas, according to the World Bank, dam building is presented as the key to developing the energy sector, not least by recently re-elected President Condé, who has made numerous promises in this regard. The stakes are particularly high given that Guinea, known as West Africa’s ‘water tower’, has a large network of rivers that could be exploited as a source of renewable energy.

The dam building project has strong popular support in Tougué and the joint report of CECIDE and International Rivers was not well received by the local communities. They accuse the NGOs of being against their interests. In a statement to the press, Samba Camara, spokesperson of the women and youth movement for the development of Tougué, which maintains that the park’s future depends on the construction of the dam, responded: “We are really surprised at the approach taken by these two NGOs. They are using lies to try to prevent this mega-project which the people of Tougué are counting on for the development of their prefecture. They should know that without the Koukoutamba dam, there will be no park.” In light of threats to chase away the animals and the park wardens, the works were halted, pending the outcome of talks aimed at easing the tensions.

The environmentalists, whilst acknowledging Guinea’s need to improve its electricity supply, warn against the dangers of false solutions. “The dam will not help them: two-thirds of the electricity produced by the Koukoutamba dam will be exported to neighbouring countries and another part will be sold to mining companies,” argues the German NGO, which is calling on the Guinean government to focus, rather, on solar energy, which is much less harmful to the environment and will bring greater benefits to the rural population.

The appeals made by NGOs have not fallen on deaf ears. The World Bank had already withdrawn from the project and cancelled its financial participation, given the dam’s impact on the chimpanzee habitat, which it had, in fact, contributed to protecting, by partially financing the creation of the Moyen-Bafing national park in 2017, to offset the impact of mining activities on wildlife.

The withdrawal of this support did not make the Guinean government buckle. It turned, rather, in February 2019, to China, which agreed to finance the dam, via the Exim Bank. And it is a Chinese company (Sinohydro, the world’s leading dam builder) that will carry out the work, as with most such projects in Africa. It has to be said that the project is also driven by major industrial interests: the bauxite mines in this part of Guinea are big energy consumers. Some fear the dam will primarily benefit companies. In an AFP report from October 2020, people living near the Souapiti dam explain how they still have power cuts in their homes, whilst the nearby mining sites receive a constant supply of electricity.

A compromise was found at the end of the negotiations: the Moyen-Bafing park will have to be relocated. The news was announced on the radio in mid-January by the governor of the administrative region of Labé, Madifing Diane. “The conflict between wildlife conservationists and the state has been fully resolved. The chimpanzees will be relocated. They will be transferred to areas that have already been identified and are currently being prepared,” announced the region’s top official. The fate of the 8,700 people affected by the works has not yet been determined. Like in Souapiti, they risk having to leave their lands and move elsewhere.

This story has been translated from French.