, Volume 52, Issue 1, pp 33-42
Date: 12 Jun 2007

The Rufiji River flood: plague or blessing?

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The building of a large multipurpose dam is planned at Stiegler’s Gorge on the Rufiji River (Tanzania). Both national and local authorities have strongly emphasised the flood control aspect of the dam as they see the Rufiji floods as a major constraint to development. Though it is true that the Rufiji River has a high flow variability at various timescales, the flood perception in local communities differs from this view. The floods, essential for the sustenance of floodplain fertility, and therefore of the farming system, and vital to the productivity of most of the natural resources on which local communities depend, are perceived as a blessing, whilst droughts and the absence of regular flooding are perceived as the main threat. Historically, most of the food shortages in Rufiji District are associated with drought years and the myth of “the flood as a plague” emerged only in the late 1960s during the Ujamaa villagisation policy. The persistence of this myth is favoured by the inadequate assessment of the complexity of the local economies by the District technical staff. This difference in perception of the flood has major implications for development options. Under the current dam design, the alteration of the flooding pattern would have negative consequences for the downstream wetland and forest ecosystems and the flood-associated livelihoods of some 150,000 people. A cost-benefit analysis of flood control measures and a study of a dam design that would maintain the beneficial aspects of flooding should be accorded the highest priority.