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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Proposed Popa Falls Hydropower Project, Okavango River, Namibia


The preliminary environmental assessment described in this case study was performed by a team of independent professionals from Eco.Plan as well as South African and Namibian specialists. The proposed hydropower project at Popa Falls case study illustrates the importance of carefully considering the scope of a public participation process when an environmental assessment is preliminary, as it is in this case, and when trans-boundary project impacts are a factor, as they are here.

Sponsoring Agencies

  • NamPower Ltd (the company proposing the the Popa Falls Hydropower Project)
  • Water Transfer Consultants (the project engineers)


At the time of this project, approximately half of Namibia’s electricity was imported from South Africa, and Namibia was working to attain greater self-reliance in this area. The proposed Popa Falls Hydropower Project would provide a stable supply of electricity to northern Namibia, primarily to the Kavango region, and would complement a host of other proposed projects that would make use of gas, wind, and other sources to generate electricity.

Popa Falls is a stretch of rapids along the Okavango River, which originates in Angola and flows through Namibia and Botswana. The land through which the river flows in Namibia is largely state-owned and home to a small but fast-growing tourism industry. Two main ethnic groups, the Kavango-Mbukushu and San-Khwedam, rely heavily on the river for subsistence agriculture and for food. Below Popa Falls, floodplains open into the Okavango Delta that traverses the Namibia-Botswana border; the delta provides food and income from the tourism industry on both sides of the border.

Traditional communities and tourism operators in Namibia and in Botswana could be impacted by the proposed hydropower project. The proposed project may cause issues upstream to include localized flooding, loss of established ecosystems, loss of agricultural land and subsequent socio-economic impacts, and potential health threats. The primary concern downstream is altered sediment flows which, if not mitigated, could harm the Okavango swamp ecosystem. The swamp is located in Botswana and is but one example of the potential trans-boundary impacts of the proposed project. To address these concerns, among others, the project engineers, Water Transfer Consultants (WTC), brought Eco.Plan and other specialists onboard to conduct a preliminary environmental assessment, which included public participation activities.

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Public Participation Goal and Level

The public participation process was undertaken in both Namibia and Botswana. The process followed the requirements set out in the Namibia Environmental Assessment Policy.

The public participation goals were to:

  • Introduce the project proposal;
  • Explain the public participation and environmental assessment processes;
  • Hear and record public issues and concerns;
  • Provide opportunities for public input and gathering public knowledge; and
  • Discuss alternatives to the project.

The highest level of public participation sought was the Consult level (see the spectrum of public participation) (1 pp, 755 K, About PDF)Exit

Public Participation Approach

At the time of the preliminary environmental assessment, Namibia had an extensive but nearly untested legal and policy framework for addressing issues surrounding environmental protection and public participation. Included in this framework is the Environmental Assessment Policy, which aims to:

  • Inform decision makers and promote accountability for decisions;
  • Enable a broad range of options and alternatives to be considered;
  • Ensure a high degree of public participation by all sectors of the Namibian public; and
  • Promote sustainable development, and ensure that costs and benefits are taken into account and that internationally recognized standards are promoted. In addition negative, secondary and cumulative impacts must be minimized and benefits enhanced.

The public participation process developed during the preliminary environmental assessment was driven by the above-mentioned policy.

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Specific Public Participation Tools and Techniques Used

Sponsor agencies conducted the following public participation activities.

  • Namibian and Botswanan specialists were appointed to assist with the public participation processes in each country. Each identified local stakeholders to target for outreach and involvement in the process.
  • Stakeholders were invited to public meetings through advertisements placed in three Namibian newspapers and one Botswanan newspaper. A press release by NamPower was published in a national newspaper. Meetings in northern Namibia were also advertised on the radio and notices were put up in public places near Divundu. Known groups and individuals were contacted by fax, letter, or email.
  • Five public meeting were held in a less than two-week period. Three were held in three different Namibian cities (Windhoek, Divindu, and Rundu), and two were held in Maun, Botswana. The purposes of these meetings were held to inform stakeholders about the project and to elicit stakeholder issues and concerns regarding the project proposal. Translators were employed in the meetings held in Namibia, and in Botswana, the meetings were conducted in two languages simultaneously (English and Setswana). Information sheets were distributed at the meetings and minutes were distributed afterwards to both attendees and other stakeholders.
  • Individual and group meetings were also held. Namibian and Botswanan authorities, both government and tribal, were contacted initially by letter; in some cases these letters were followed by a meeting. An additional meeting was held with a group of scientists tasked with performing long-term monitoring in the Okavango Delta.
  • Informal consultations were held with various specialists to gather information and to assist in assessing potential environmental impacts.
  • An issues and concerns summary was distributed with meeting minutes, and stakeholders were asked to respond if their issues and concerns were inaccurately recorded.
  • The preliminary environmental assessment was released for a one-month public comment period. A copy was made available on the NamPower website. Hard copies of the assessment were made available in towns and cities in which meetings were previously held; stakeholders were notified via email that these hard copies were available. NamPower also announced that the preliminary assessment had been released during a press conference.

To ensure an open and transparent process, there was continuous consultation with Namibian and Botswanan officials from all levels of government (including tribal), non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations ), scientists, and local people from the area surrounding the proposed project.

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The public participation process accomplished the goals that were established at the outset of the process. In addition, the use of public participation enabled project sponsors to identify specific stakeholder issues that project sponsors could then address at a very early stage of the project. For example, stakeholder concerns included:

  • The impact of the proposed project on the Okavango Swamps downstream of Popa Falls, including impacts on water flow and sediment transport;
  • Potential destruction of unique habitats and the cumulative impacts of this and other proposed projects in the area;
  • Resettlement issues and potential impacts on subsistence livelihoods; and
  • Distribution of project costs and benefits.

These issues, among others, were included in the preliminary environmental assessment report.

Many of the issues raised during the preliminary environmental assessment process were actively used to refine the project proposal and potential mitigation measures. For example, an issue related to disruption of sediment supply to the Okavango Delta was raised by stakeholders as a significant issue. This issue was later investigated and actively addressed by the design engineers in refining the project proposal. In addition, the report noted that while initial mitigation measures were identified for many of the issues raised by stakeholders, further detailed investigation would be required to more precisely determine the significance of issues should the project move forward. Issues that were not as comprehensively addressed in the preliminary environmental assessment report, such as compensation methods and issues related to social impacts such as health and safety impacts, were noted as requiring detailed assessments in a full environmental assessment.

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Lessons Learned

This project illustrates some of the challenges associated with designing and implementing public participation activities during the preliminary stages of proposed projects. One of the core values of public participation is that those who are affected by a decision have a right to participate in the decision-making process. Adhering to this core value means involving stakeholders during the formative stages of a project so they can have an influence on whether it should go forward, and if so, on its eventual design. However, when a project is in its preliminary stages, there are many unknowns, which can create challenges related to information sharing and perceived transparency.

In this case, the project sponsors were essentially vetting the idea of a proposed power plant at Popa Falls and were gauging stakeholder responses to the idea. However, they could not provide specific information about proposed sites for the plant because they were only in the preliminary planning stages. To stakeholders, this can appear that sponsor agencies are withholding information essential to public participation. This dynamic underscores the importance of setting expectations about the scope of public participation during preliminary stages and how their input will be use to determine whether, and under what conditions, a project will proceed. Further, it highlights the importance of informing stakeholders about the overall decision process and the various points in the process when public input will be sought. However, setting expectations about the scope of public participation and the overall decision process requires that project sponsors commit to specific level of public participation.

While this project made effective use of using existing communication channels in traditional communities, it is important to recognize their potential limits. Making use of traditional communication channels generally encouraged broad stakeholder feedback, but existing power structures within these communities may mean that some voices were stifled. For example, in one case a tribal chief endorsed the project and his endorsement had a stifling effect on and limited others’ willingness to raise issues and concerns.

Further, incorporating a range of meeting types tailored to the intended audience helped to ensure solid feedback. For example, holding large meetings early on helped to develop an initial group of issues and concerns, and, later on, meeting one-on-one or in small groups with individuals perceived to be “higher-level” allowed these individuals to speak more openly, since they were not in the public eye, as they would have been during a large public meeting.

Additionally, the use of a broad range of communication tools is important when disseminating information about project outcomes. In this case, the use of email to disseminate information on the preliminary environmental assessment may have been inappropriate for some stakeholders. Making use of the media to share information was a useful strategy in Namibia.

Lastly, some general lessons learned were gathered as a result of conducting the public participation process, including:

  • Identify and involve a broad range of stakeholders groups at a level appropriate to the environmental assessment process and project;
  • Actively incorporate and respond to issues raised by stakeholders, which builds trust and credibility;
  • Commitment and transparency can enhance the integrity and independence of the process; and
  • Tailor the process to needs of various stakeholders. Discrete processes may be necessary for public participation in trans-boundary projects.

Learn more about the Proposed Popa Falls Hydropower Project in Okavango River, Namibia. (PDF) (18 pp, 262 K, About PDF) Exit

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.

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For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:

Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460