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Zambian government must ensure transparent dam approval processes, uphold environmental regulations, and protect local community rights

27 March 2024 -The Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) is concerned by recent remarks of President Hakainde Hichilema made during the launch of early maize harvests in the Mkushi Central province of Zambia on 20 March 2024. The President stated, “[It] is a presidential order that dams that have been on the application tables or consideration tables for so long Lunsemfwa, Mkhushi river dams and any other dams will be approved by ZEMA and WARMA without any delays.”  The fast-tracking of dam applications was further confirmed in an interview with the Director General of the Zambian Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) on 22 March 2024.

Acknowledging the drought and national state of disaster in Zambia, measures to counter such conditions must adhere to the rule of law, including environmental and other relevant regulations. The fast-tracking of applications cannot come at the expense of safeguarding and protecting individual and community rights such as public notification and participation.

While dams can potentially help alleviate the consequences of the drought in the short-term, the long-term environmental, climate change, and sociological impact of dams, such as risks of loss of forestry, ecological balance, biodiversity, and sustaining livelihoods, are vital factors that must be considered when assessing a dam application.

Dams can pose threats to the food security of rural communities, water security, and local livelihoods, potentially leading to health issues, security concerns, and conflicts. The potential competition for fertile land and water caused by dams can lead to violent disputes and conflicts within communities. SALC has been actively aiding displaced communities in Zambia since 2015 and has witnessed first-hand the impact on communities who lost land or oppose eviction.

SALC’s Executive Director, Anneke Meerkotter, stressed that: “The assessment of dam applications by ZEMA and WARMA must align with relevant laws, regulations, and procedural guidelines for decision-making. We have seen in the past that rushed decisions can have irreversible consequences, such as environmental damage and social unrest. It is essential to uphold communities’ rights and protect the environment, even if it takes more time to make decisions.

SALC urges Zambian authorities, including ZEMA and WARMA, to appropriately assess the threats and risks that such dam applications hold and not undermine protected rights of rural communities and individuals. SALC further calls on the Zambian government to guarantee that the authorisation procedure for dam projects is transparent and compliant with legal frameworks, including but not limited to the Constitution, Environmental Management Act, Water Resource Management Act, and other relevant domestic and international legislation.

Issued by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre