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A case study of one development project – Cahora Bassa, Mozambique

 Development FACTFILE



South Africa




$578.6 billion

$2,323 billion





Birth rate




Infant mortality




Life expectancy




Population below the poverty line




External debt


$47.56 billion


Electricity production

14.84 billion kWh

257.9 billion kWh

352.7 billion kWh

Electricity exports

8.53 billion kWh

15.04 billion kWh

4.481 billion kWh

Electricity from HEP




Source – CIA Fact book 2013

Dams are often seen by countries as a great way of raising the development level of a country.  They offer energy for other industries, the energy they produce is environmentally “clean” and the construction of such large structures generates instant employment in construction and its associated industries.

Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world, attempted to use dam building as a path out of poverty through the construction of the Cahora Bassa Dam. This is a good example of bilateral aid, as although Mozambique now has full ownership of the dam, initially Portugal had an 82% stake and Mozambique only 18%.  Mozambique also had to contract much of the work to private companies, diminishing their share of profits further.  As can be seen in the table, Mozambique desperately needs a boost to its development, with low HDI, high infant mortality and low life expectancy. 

The dam blocks the 4th largest artificial lake in Africa, and is one of 3 major dams along the mighty Zambezi River which passes through Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe and finally Mozambique.  It has created a lake that is 292km long, up to 32km wide and a maximum of 157m deep.


The dam was started in the 1960s by the then ruling Portuguese colonial government, in agreement with South Africa that a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) Transmission System would be put into place to move some of the power to South Africa.  The lake began to fill in 1974 but unfortunately a long civil war (post-independence from Portugal) prevented use of the scheme.  It was the transmission lines and towers that were damage limiting use of the electricity that Cahora Bassa could produce.  Finally, in 1995 renewal work began and by 1997 the dam was back in full operation but not at full capacity.


Pros and cons

The dam provides an important power import facility to the South African grid. It transmits 1920 MW of power from the Cahora Bassa generating station on the Zambezi River in northern Mozambique. One megawatt can power a thousand US homes on average, so the dam is very good at producing electricity. However, only 1% of homes in RURAL Mozambique have a direct electricity supply, so locals have not benefitted from the energy produced by the dam. This is because most of the power is sold to South Africa, which boosts the national economy but does not benefit citizens at a local level.  This is unfortunate, as the dam has enough potential to meet most of Mozambique’s power needs.

The dam could produce more energy, but its potential is limited by other dams upstream that keep river flows very low. At other economic levels, whilst the local shrimp industry has been destroyed a Kapenta fishery industry has developed, harvesting 10,000 tonnes in 2003. The potential for the dam to reduce flooding has also been a disappointment, with floods downstream of the dam in 1978.  Mozambique has also had floods on other rivers in 2000 and in January 2013 (which killed 36 and displaced 70,000 people - BBC).  These floods are an environmental limit to development, which the dams such as Cahora Bassa were hoped to reduce.


Think about it
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