Like a mirage, the Dâures Green Hydrogen Village’s (DGHV) solar panels flicker in and out of sight, shimmering in the searing midday heat of the Namib Desert. It is only after the last sharp curve in the road through the desolate landscape that a large array of solar panels in a fenced-off compound of four newly built houses and other buildings are revealed.
Building anything here is no mean feat: Dâures is a four to five-hour drive from the nearest source of supplies, set on a desolate plain close to the border of the Skeleton Coast Park.
Despite the heat, it is a hive of activity of mostly subcontractors’ workers bustling about in the thin haze of fine dust churned by heavy trucks and two excavators digging trenches in what is promised to be Namibia’s first net-zero village upon completion.
This is just the pilot site; in its final scaled-up form, the DGHV will be enormous: a 15 000ha tunnel-farming facility employing 3 000 people to produce 350 000 tonnes of ammonia a year, and tomatoes and carrots for the European and Asian export markets.
But while there is no lack of sunlight and wind, there is an obvious problem: a lack of potable water.
In December 2023, DGHV was drilling five boreholes into four shallow, plastic-lined ponds for construction purposes. But the water was mineralised before it could be used for construction and washing purposes.
Drinking water for the staff was still a problem, and had to be trucked in from Henties Bay, about 150km away. Uis, which is closer at 100km away, no longer had any water to spare, says site manager Request Haraseb.
Since the announcement of Namibia’s ambitious, US$190-billion green hydrogen-based development plan in 2021, the area around the Brandberg has experienced a surge in mining exploration.
Ten kilometres north of the DGHV, Australian-owned Andrada Mining’s exploration team is hunting for copper in the former state-owned Brandberg West tin and tungsten mine, which closed down in 1991.
Like the DGHV, Andrada was also relying on the same aquifer for water – but in an area with an annual rainfall of 20mm, signs are there that this resource is being depleted rapidly, like the build-up of salt around Andrada’s borehole drilled less than three months ago.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy’s cadastre shows more than 50 current or pending mining and exclusive prospecting licences around the Brandberg, for lithium, niobium, tin and tantalum, rare earth minerals, gold and uranium.
Two of those pending applications are from Enersense Energy Namibia, the holding company for the DGHV project, for uranium fuel – an unusual step for a clean energy company to take.
Company documents show Enersense Energy Namibia was registered in July 2021 by Jerome Namaseb, Martin Nambundunga and Anastacia Imbili, in the month after the Requests for Proposals for green hydrogen and fertiliser projects were issued by the Namibia Investment Promotions and Development Board as the presidential implementing agency.
Imbili is the granddaughter of founding president Sam Nujoma, while Nambundunga is the son of a struggle-era stalwart and former chief of staff of the Namibian Defence Force.
Imbili reportedly told The Namibian that she had since resigned from the project, and her initial shareholding appears to have been taken over by German consulting engineering firm Fichtner GmbH of Stuttgart as lead designer.
Asked if was it not unusual or irregular for a consultant to become a partner in the project, Namaseb declined to comment: this was all related to the intellectual property of the Dâures plans and the new technology that they intend utilising, he said.
Fichtner’s African business development branch executive director Thomas Prosy confirmed the relationship with Enersense. Although he did not respond at the time of writing to this specific question, the shareholding appeared related to the German Ministry of Education and Research’s role in conducting research at Dâures into the use of hydrolysis in producing green ammonia.
Back in Windhoek, Namaseb was evasive about why a green energy project would also be interested in obtaining uranium rights.
“It’s just to secure land tenure rights”, intended to keep other competitors in the green hydrogen sphere away from their designated area. Many commercial farmers do this in order to keep mineral prospectors off their land, he said.
DGHV has sunk at least five new boreholes in the small aquifer underneath their concession area that they say produces enough water for their construction needs. The high salinity level – as can be seen in another new borehole their neighbours Andrada Mining sunk further along the same aquifer – requires extensive filtering by reverse osmosis, a process that typically loses 40% to waste. Despite this, the company is confident it has enough water to meet its pilot project phase needs.
WHERE IS THE WATER?
Dâures was in negotiations with the French electricity utility Orana for supplies from the Wlotzkasbaken desalination plant, Namaseb confirmed, but declined to provide any details.
This presented a major cost factor, as a new pipeline of more than 200km would potentially cost billions, Namaseb admitted, but he was confident that the boreholes they had drilled on site would be adequate to meet the pilot project’s initial needs. The DGHV’s initial targets were modest: producing 31 tonnes of ammonia to cultivate 500 tonnes of carrots and tomatoes in their new tunnels, which would require no more than 10 cubic metres of water a day, according to Namaseb.
How many vegetables would they need to repay about R240-million in capital outlay in the form of a German grant? Namaseb dismissed that as an unfair and irrelevant question: the idea of the pilot project phase was just to establish what output was possible.
At the mineral-rich but water-poor area at Uis, about 90km away, the surge in mining activity has seen the former tin-mining town run out of water every day of late. The 50-year-old NamWater pipeline supplying the town has become so calcified that it has reduced supply to less than a third of original capacity, says local lodge operator Basil Calitz.
Many at Uis suspect the village council was secretly selling the only fresh supplies to the new Chinese and Australian-owned lithium mines as this pipeline was the only source of fresh water in the entire area between Uis and Dâures.
Eric Xaweb, manager of the local Tsiseb Conservancy that also holds a small share in Enersense, was clearly surprised to hear that producing hydrogen and ammonia would require up to 45 litres of fresh water to produce one litre of ammonia.
But what shocked him more was the fact that ammonia is highly poisonous, a basic fact that does not appear to have been shared with the affected local community.
That was something he needed to address urgently with the village council, Xaweb said.
The chances of this making a difference to the Dâures project’s management appeared slim: Uis has not had a town manager for several years now, and the village council was run by the local chief who was firmly behind the project, local residents say.
The water shortage was reaching crisis proportions in the informal Gobobos amethyst mining camp, halfway between Uis and Daures.
A small community of 60 informal miners say they had for more than a month not received their regular supply of 5 000 litres, trucked in by an Uis supplier at a cost of R1 per litre. The implication was that someone else was paying more per litre for an increasingly limited supply of the precious commodity, the miners complained.
Informal miner Wallace Lukas, like others in the small miners’ camp, had heard of the DGHV project, but says no one had informed them of any job opportunities. Of late, the new lithium mining companies were pushing the small miners off their mining claims, issued to powerful people in the government and their friends, he says.
“We are dying here, but the government doesn’t care about us.”
- John Grobler is a Namibia-based associate at Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism. This investigation is part of a #PowerTracker series on green hydrogen, supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. – Oxpeckers
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