The vulnerability of hydropower production in the Zambezi River Basin to the impacts of climate change and irrigation development

  • Randall Spalding-Fecher
  • Arthur Chapman
  • Francis Yamba
  • Hartley Walimwipi
  • Harald Kling
  • Bernard Tembo
  • Imasiku Nyambe
  • Boaventura Cuamba
Original Article


The Zambezi River Basin in southern Africa is relatively undeveloped from both a hydropower and irrigated agriculture perspective, despite the existence of the large Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams. Accelerating economic growth increases the potential for competition for water between hydropower and irrigated agriculture, and climate change will add additional stresses to this system. The objective of this study was to assess the vulnerability of major existing and planned new hydropower plants to changes in climate and upstream irrigation demand. Our results show that Kariba is highly vulnerable to a drying climate, potentially reducing average electricity generation by 12 %. Furthermore, the expansion of Kariba generating capacity is unlikely to deliver the expected increases in production even under a favourable climate. The planned Batoka Gorge plant may also not be able to reach the anticipated production levels from the original feasibility study. Cahora Bassa’s expansion is viable under a wetting climate, but its potential is less likely to be realised under a drying climate. The planned Mphanda Nkuwa plant can reach expected production levels under both climates if hydropower is given water allocation priority, but not if irrigation is prioritised, which is likely. For both Cahora Bassa and Mphanda Nkuwa, prioritising irrigation demand over hydropower could severely compromise these plants’ output. Therefore, while climate change is the most important overall driver of variation in hydropower potential, increased irrigation demand will also have a major negative impact on downstream plants in Mozambique. This implies that climate change and upstream development must be explicitly incorporated into both project and system expansion planning.


Climate impacts Hydropower Southern Africa Irrigation Zambezi River Basin Development impacts 



The study team is grateful to the UK DFID-funded Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) for supporting this research, to the Project Steering Committee members for their insights and support and to the many technical staff at the SAPP utilities and the Zambezi River Authority that provided the underlying data for the analysis. As part of the review process, the research was presented and discussed in detail at a workshop with the Zambezi River Authority and SAPP members in October 2013, as well as in SAPP meetings in February 2012, August 2012 and February 2013. The team also appreciates the comments and insights from four anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this article.


This document is an output from a project funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) for the benefit of developing countries. However, the views expressed and information contained in it are not necessarily those of or endorsed by DFID, which can accept no responsibility for such views or information or for any reliance placed on them.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Randall Spalding-Fecher
    • 1
  • Arthur Chapman
    • 2
  • Francis Yamba
    • 3
  • Hartley Walimwipi
    • 4
  • Harald Kling
    • 5
  • Bernard Tembo
    • 6
  • Imasiku Nyambe
    • 7
  • Boaventura Cuamba
    • 8
  1. 1.Carbon Limits ASPelhamUSA
  2. 2.OneWorld Sustainable InvestmentsCape TownSouth Africa
  3. 3.Centre for Energy Environment and Engineering ZambiaLusakaZambia
  4. 4.Snow Systems ZambiaLusakaZambia
  5. 5.Poyry EnergyViennaAustria
  6. 6.University College LondonLondonUK
  7. 7.University of ZambiaLusakaZambia
  8. 8.University of Eduardo MondlaneMaputoMozambique

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