Zimbabwe – Zambia: Low water levels in Kariba Dam spark tension over electricity distribution

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Wednesday, 8 February 2023 10:55
An aerial view shows the Kariba Dam and the Kariba lake in Kariba on January 20, 2020. From the Zambian side the plant is managed by ZESCO, a state-owned power company. (Photo by Guillem Sartorio / AFP)

Tension is rising between Zimbabwe and Zambia over the mismanagement of water used for electricity generated by Kariba Dam which has left the two nations struggling with power shortages.

In a briefing during his tour of Kariba Dam in late January, President Hakainde Hichilema said he would engage his counterpart President Emmerson Mnangagwa over the matter.

“We will ask our foreign ministers to call for a family meeting so that we will have a family conversation away from the media, mainly to work together, not to polarise each other,” he said.

Zambian authorities are blaming Zimbabwe for exhausting its allocated water quota in Kariba Dam, which has seen water levels dropping significantly because of the effects of climate change being felt across southern Africa in the past couple of years. This has taken a chunk of Zambia’s electricity supply.


Zimbabwe relies heavily on the Kariba Hydro Power plant which produces more than 70% of the country’s electricity. Other alternatives, such as the Hwange Thermal Power station has aging equipment, limiting electricity generation at the coal-fired power plant.

In November, the Zimbabwe River Authority (ZRA), mandated with managing water in Kariba Dam and its reservoirs, ordered the State-owned Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) and Zambia’s Kariba Hydro Power Company Limited (KHPC) to stop electricity generation at the dam due to low water levels. ZRA is tasked with monitoring both sides of the dam and its reservoirs.

Most parts of Zimbabwe are currently being hit with more than 18 hours of brownouts a day while Zambia in early January began rolling out load-shedding schedules lasting more than 12 hours a day.

The ongoing power shortages have had a huge impact on the economic growth of the economies of the two nations.

Load shedding affected small businesses in Zambia earlier this year, forcing Hichilema to intervene by reducing the impact of load shedding on small businesses, such as millers and farmers.

He also directed government officials to speed up bringing private power facilities, such as solar plants, onto the power grid to mitigate the power shortage.

Fragile relationship between Zimbabwe and Zambia

Vusumuzi Sifile, a development professional based in Lusaka, says the low water levels affect both Zimbabwe and Zambia, as the two countries depend on that shared water resource for the biggest chunk of water for their power supply.

“There is a need for authorities in the two countries to constantly engage each other on all aspects of managing this shared resource, and mitigate any potential misunderstanding,” he tells The Africa Report.

Climate change has had a major impact on this shared water, but Zimbabwe’s bad governance regarding the resource affects Zambia’s electricity output, too, according to Obadiah Dodo, an international relations expert.

“Zambia has a reasonable argument about the water levels. In the future, we are likely to see a review of the [Memorandum of Understanding] MoU tying the two states to water use,” he says.

Dodo adds that if not handled diplomatically, there could be serious governance disputes culminating in interstate and regional conflicts over resources, including water access and use.

“The dwindling water levels are likely to jeopardise millions of lives, tourism and the fishing industry, widening the rift and exacerbating the battered relationship between President Hichilema and Mnangagwa,” says Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

No love lost

Zimbabwe and Zambia’s relationship has been deteriorating since Hichilema took over in 2021 after defeating incumbent Edgar Lungu who ruled with an iron fist just like Mnangagwa.

Hichilema is an ally to Zimbabwe’s main opposition party leader Nelson Chamisa who is set to challenge Mnangagwa in the 2023 general polls.

The Zambian president even invited Chamisa to his inauguration in Lusaka in a rare move in the southern African nation’s political history.

Zimbabwe sent its ruling party Zanu-PF secretary for administration Obert Mpofu early last year to Lusaka to engage President Hichilema and his party without success. Diplomatic protocol suggests that a ministerial meeting would have been more appropriate.

Old generation vs New generation leaders

SADC region countries since African independence have enjoyed a sense of community as most leaders emerged from liberation groups, which strengthened their bonds, according to conflict resolution specialist Dodo.

“Hichilema does not come from that generation and sees governance from a more contemporary and democratic standpoint. He comes from the opposition stable defined by persecution and harassment,” he says.

Hichilema has fostered friendly relations with Zimbabwean opposition leader Chamisa, who have shared experiences in their fight against the ruling parties, says Dodo.

“On the contrary, Mnangagwa is part of the first-generation leadership. Because of this, they cannot naturally blend,” he says.

Lecturer Makumbe agrees. “Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF represent the old order, while Hichilema and his party represent the new order. This irreconcilable dichotomy has thus made the two leaders to be incompatible.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options