The Luangwa supports a wide range of wildlife. It is the only refuge for reintroduced black rhinos in Zambia, known as the 'Valley of the Leopard', and hosts over 400 species of birds.
"It should be every Zambian’s agenda: how do we save this river."
The Luangwa and its seasonal variation is intrinsically linked to the communities living along its banks. People depend on the river for everything from food and water to cultural and spiritual heritage.
Just upstream from where the Luangwa meets the Zambezi is a tiny town with a bustling market. Its shops epitomize the connections people have to the health of the river. From fried tiger fish to baskets made of river reeds to the nutritive local ‘masau’ fruit (Ziziphus mauritiana) harvested from floodplain trees, each vendor supports livelihoods that directly depend on a healthy, flowing Luangwa.
A proposed dam at Ndevu Gorge threatens to transform the river and put all who depend on it at risk. The dam would create a reservoir that reaches South Luangwa National Park, with continued impacts felt for many kilometers upstream. The changes to the river would displace communities near the gorge - destroy livelihoods and negatively impact wildlife - and the vast tourism economy that it supports.
Fish are an important source of protein for people living along the river, and fishing and related trade activities are culturally and economically important livelihoods. While the river still holds viable fish populations, some species have dramatically declined or disappeared in the years since the Carabora Dam was placed downstream on the mainstem of the Zambezi. This is because dams generally block the movement of fish, affecting the life cycle of many species which then leads to a reduction in fish stocks or even their disappearance.
The headwaters of the Luangwa are the forest-covered hills of Mafinga. The trees, which are critical to keeping the Luangwa's water flowing and clean, are disappearing as people increasingly turn to charcoal, intensive farming and other unsustainable forest practices to maintain their livelihoods.
As the Luangwa and its tributaries recede in the dry season, local small scale farmers cultivate the fertile soil left behind. As the tourism industry grows, more local small scale farmers are turning to organic farming of high-income crops like lettuce and herbs, which has minimal environmental impact but generates significant revenue.
Experts have dubbed South Luangwa National Park as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, and not without reason. The concentration of game around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons is among the most intense in Africa.
Formerly an avionics engineer in Lusaka, now governs the rural chiefdom that includes Ndevu Gorge, site of a proposed hydropower dam on the Luangwa River. For him, his people come first. "A chief is not about power. It's not about himself," he explains. "It's about the people, and how do you look after your people. That's is what it means to be chief."
For his people, the dam would be devastating. The Luangwa and its seasonal flows give his people water, fish, and the rich habitat to accommodate elephants, lions, buffalo, hippo and other wildlife that attracts tourism. Damming the river would end all of that, and displace his people, forcing them to find new ways of life and far off places.
"Let us look at the alternatives," he implores, referencing dozens of other rivers in Zambia where dams would generate more power with less impact on people and habitats. He, alongside WWF and several other organizations, are calling on the Zambia government to keep the Luangwa wild and free while developing a national plan for hydropower development that minimizes social and environmental impacts while fulfilling the energy demands of the nation.
As Chief Luembe says, it always comes back to the people. "Let's not take advantage of people's ignorance, but let's understand their cry. If they don't want a developmental project for some reasons, let's listen to them."
For people and nature, the Luangwa should remain wild and free. WWF and partners are calling on the government to stop the Ndevu Gorge dam and develop a national hydropower plan that ensures the right dams are built on the right rivers.