‘Dis onse valle daai [Those are our falls]”. This is the resounding sentiment among the people of Onseepkans, the closest South African town to the proposed hydroelectric scheme at Orange Falls.
This small community next to the Orange River is about 50km from Pofadder. Surrounding the dirt road to Onseepkans is shrubby, semiarid vegetation: quiver trees and rocky outcrops punctuate the landscape. In the distance, the many hills signal Namibia. Barring a power line that runs along the road, there is almost no sign of human development.
In Onseepkans, the vegetation is replaced by stubborn yellow dust and many former homes stand empty, roofless and windowless.
The community feels so strongly about the hydro development that their councillor, the mayor of Khai-Ma municipality, Aurelia Josop, cut short a presentation by consultants Aurecon in February.
According to Khai-Ma communications officer Alfriedo Green, the municipality was informed about the proposed development the day before the public participation meeting.
‘We want our falls unviolated’
Alphonsus Biba was born in Onseepkans, and now runs his building company in Pofadder, which is where he attended a public participation meeting.
“It felt like they [Aurecon] wanted to bully us,” Biba said, referring to Aurecon’s dismissal of questions and the impression given that the developments were a done deal.
Biba reminisces about time spent at Orange Falls, and the barbel they would catch below the falls. It was also the place where he first saw the “river bird”, or fish eagle, catch a fish.
“The community is unhappy. It isn’t going to see any of the benefits. Those are our falls, we want [them] just as [they are], unviolated, with just the baboons, fish and birds that live there.”
Similarly, Jerome Jaar, an Onseepkans resident, talks about the different descriptive names the locals have for the spots surrounding the waterfall: Abram se gat (Abram’s hole), Sandmond (sand mouth) and Witklip (white rock), to name a few.
“Our people can’t go all the way to Augrabies [Falls], so we take our children to Orange Falls,” said Jaar.
He believes it is unfair that the power generated by the project will not be used in the town. “Onseepkans is always sucking on the hind tit.”
No benefit for local South Africans
Orange Falls Hydro Electric, a special purpose vehicle created by the developers, considers this to be a Namibian project, and so local South Africans will not benefit.
But the border between Namibia and South Africa is contested, the Namibian Constitution considering it to be in the middle of the river, whereas South Africa regards it as being at the 100-year flood line on the northern side.
The sentiments of the residents of Pofadder and Onseepkans are informed to a large extent by their experience of the solar power plants being built between the two towns.
“People promise moonshine and roses, but we’ve seen no benefits,” said Jaar.
Edward Vries, Khai-Ma municipality’s acting municipal manager, echoes this: “With solar power, there were all kinds of promises, including trusts to benefit the community, but nothing has materialised.”
Vries and Green spoke about Khai-Ma’s plans to promote ecotourism in the area. “We want to see more local people taking ownership of ecotourism projects,” Vries said.
One person who already benefits from ecotourism is river guide Alex Morkel, who is employed by rafting company Gravity Adventures. He believes development at Orange Falls would be unfair.
“I will lose my job and no work will be provided for our people. Many overseas people come here to see the falls. I also want my children to see the place.”
Attempts to contact members of the Karasburg community in Namibia were unsuccessful.
In the area surrounding the Augrabies Falls National Park, the perception is that South African National Parks will ensure that no development takes place in the park.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed concern that the mere fact that a development in the national park was being entertained was highly problematic, and said that, should the development be approved, it would set a precedent which could be detrimental to other national parks in the country.
The source cited concern about project partner Hydro Tasmania’s (previously known as the Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania) controversial action in the 1970s, when Australia’s Lake Peddar was dammed as part of a hydroelectric generation scheme. The government revoked the lake’s national park status in order for the project to go ahead.
In Riemvasmaak to the north of the Augrabies Falls, however, feelings are mixed. The majority of the Augrabies project would be on Riemvasmaak land, and the community would hold shares in a trust.
Tourism information officer Clarissa Damara said the community welcomed the possibility of job creation as long as the environment was left undisturbed. Community leader Abraham Katimba said they had been left confused by developers.
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