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What fate a four-acre toad?

By Alex Avery
web posted April 3, 2006

Picture yourself in charge of an extremely poor East African country. You have a choice: approve of the building of hydroelectric project that will provide much-needed electricity to your impoverished people at a low cost; or, protect a tiny half-inch toad that exists on only four acres of the planet? 

Kihansi Spray ToadThat is the metaphorical question we might all ask ourselves as we contemplate the potential loss of the Kihansi Spray Toad. This tiny toad has lived for at least the last several thousand years—and perhaps for millions—in a small remote gorge in the Udzunga Mountains of South Central Tanzania. There the toads have thrived on the moss-covered rocks of the steep 4 kilometer gorge created by the drop of the Kihansi River from its high plateau. They eat the tiny water bugs that also exist only within the confines of the small, isolated gorge. Because of the constant mist and wind created by the waterfall, Kihansi Spray Toads give birth to live offspring and have flaps to cover their nostrils—both features quite rare among toads. 

But the large vertical drop of the river from the plateau also made the site a perfect spot for a hydroelectric dam in energy-starved Tanzania. Starting in the early 1990s, the World Bank and several European governments financed construction of a $275 million hydroelectricity project; building a small dam at the top of the falls to create a 50 acre reservoir and boring a tunnel through the rock to divert 90 percent of the river’s water to three turbines to make electricity. The water is returned to the river 6 kilometers below the falls. 

In mid-construction, the toad species and a unique variety of coffee plant were discovered in the gorge. Conservationists scrambled to develop a plan to save them from the water diversion. Unfortunately, those plans were not ready by the time the dam was completed and electricity production began in late 1999.  

Only nine months later was an elaborate sprinkler system up and running to try and save the mist-dependent ecosystem. By then, much of the gorge had dried out and the toad population had plummeted. From a pre-dam toad population estimated at 50,000, the toads had dwindled to just a few thousand.  

At first the sprinklers seemed to work. Following their installation, the toads rebounded to some 20,000 by June of 2003. A month later, however, a disease-causing fungus had once again slashed toad numbers down to a few thousand. Ironically, the amphibian-killing fungus was most likely introduced into the gorge by visiting conservationists.

Today, a couple of hundred Kihansi Spray Toads cling to planetary existence in terrariums at the Bronx Zoo. Their fate in the sprinkler-misted gorge is unknown at this time, but only a few were spotted there last summer and many are pessimistic.

Few disagree that the toad’s plight is an ecological tragedy. The real question is whether the energy gains were worth this ecological cost. The answer, of course, depends on your perspective.

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder wrote a scathing letter to the World Bank accusing them of "passively documenting the extinction of this unique ecosystem." But as one Tanzanian conservationist notes, "Most [Tanzanians] say: Who cares about the toad? We want our electricity." It’s hard to blame them.

Consider that Tanzania is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world (barely above the Gaza strip and Sierra Leone), with a population of some 30 million earning an average of less than $2 per day. Life expectancy is a mere 42 years for men and 44 for women. Currently, Tanzanians each have access to less than one percent of the energy used by the average American or European. The modest 180 megawatt Kihansi Hydroelectric Project now supplies a whopping 25 per cent of Tanzania’s total electricity and does so without release of greenhouse gases or costly payments to Arab oil sheiks.

While we may look at the choice between the dam and the Kihansi Spray Toad as a deeply complex problem with multiple angles and no obvious "right" answers, we do this from the comfort and security of a sizeable energy cocoon. Our homes have heat and air conditioning, refrigerators, lights, clean water, computers and internet—all the product of readily available electricity and other forms of energy.

Imagine your daily lives with just 1/100th of that energy. Could you live comfortably? Would the choice between a 4-acre toad and a 36 per cent increase in your country’s electricity supply be so tough? I don’t think so.

If there is any comfort to be had in this latest eco-saga, it is that Mother Nature has seen to the extinction of 99.99999999 per cent of all species that have ever existed. It’s unlikely that the loss of the Four Acre Toad presages the end to anything other than the grinding poverty of 30 million people on Africa’s poor Eastern Coast.

Alex Avery is Director of Research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia.

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