2011-06-07, Issue 533
Hydropower dams are ï¿½well-suited for facilitating industrialisation
and exploitation of natural resources, but not for reducing Africaï¿½s
energy povertyï¿½, writes Lori Pottinger. And given the water-security
problems posed by climate change, ï¿½the proposed frenzy of African dam
building could be literally disastrous.ï¿½
Africa is the least electrified place in the world. An estimated 550
million Africans have no access to electricity. Nearly half of African
countries have a power crisis. Solving this huge problem is made more
difficult by widespread poverty, and because most Africans live far
from the grid, greatly adding to the cost of bringing electricity to
Under these challenging conditions, there are no second chances for
electrifying Africa: It must be done right the first time. Yet many of
the continent's energy planners are pinning their hopes for African
electrification on something as ephemeral as the rain, by pushing for
a grid of large hydro dams across the continent. The World Bank has
joined the fray, with its latest World Development Report calling for
a major hydropower rollout for the continent. This model is well-
suited for facilitating industrialisation and exploitation of natural
resources, but not for reducing Africaï¿½s energy poverty.
Putting aside the appropriateness of this plan for meeting basic
needs, this vision fails to take into account the unpredictable nature
of Africaï¿½s rivers, a situation that will be made worse by a changing
climate. New African dams are being built with no examination of how
climate change will impact them. Many existing dams are already
suffering from drought-caused power shortages. Climate change is
expected to dramatically alter the hydrology of African rivers,
creating both worse droughts and more dangerous floods (the latter
causing safety concerns for poorly maintained or operated dams). At
the same time, many African nations face huge water-security problems.
In this climate, the proposed frenzy of African dam building could be
The oft-repeated sound-bite that only 5-8 per cent of the continent's
hydro potential has been tapped is an incomplete message at best. The
other side of the coin is that Africa is already dangerously hydro-
dependent. Meanwhile, Africa has not developed even a tiny fraction
of a percent of its available solar, wind, geothermal, or biomass
power. While large dams have done little to bridge the ï¿½electricity
divideï¿½ which has left so many Africans in the dark, renewable energy
projects can be scaled to meet the needs of the smallest African
village to its biggest urban areas. At a time when global warming
threatens to make Africaï¿½s rivers even less reliable for large hydro
projects, and their waters more precious for other uses, governments
and donors should be looking to diversify the energy mix.
Past hydrological records, upon which dozens of new large dams are
being planned, has little bearing on future hydrology. The economic
impacts of hydro-vulnerability will be felt both in the costs of power
cuts on industrial output, and the cost of wasted investments in non-
The economic risks of unviable dams will compound the risk already
being taken by so many African nations: That of over-dependency on
hydropower to supply electricity. Already, the majority of sub-Saharan
states get most of their electricity from rivers. (At least two
nations have begun to reverse this dependency: Tanzania, which is now
developing its gas fields, and Kenya, which has become an African
leader in geothermal power.) The question of who bears the costly
risks of nonperforming dams has yet to be debated, but thus far,
private developers appear to be mostly shielded from such risk.
The other climate risk is that many large dams seriously harm
downstream riverine communities and ecosystems, which is likely to
make climate adaptation that much harder for the many millions of
Africans who depend directly on rivers and lakes for their
livelihoods, food and water supply. Like the fairy tale that warns of
ï¿½killing the goose that lays the golden egg,ï¿½ African dam planners are
putting at risk irreplaceable ï¿½golden eggï¿½ resources such as clean,
abundant water supply, agriculturally important sediments that
replenish floodplains, riverine forests and fisheries.
Currently, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 14
African nations are considered water-stressed or water-scarce, and an
estimated 11 countries will join them in the next 25 years. Under such
conditions, free-flowing, healthy rivers will become an even more
valued resource than they are today.
Some dam planners agree that African hydroelectric schemes may be
plagued by variable rainfall patterns, but believe that they can ï¿½play
the oddsï¿½ and just build more dams, across a wider region, and connect
them all with transmission systems that would allow power to be traded
to places where drought has crippled the power supply. Yet itï¿½s hard
to sell electricity from empty reservoirs.
Climate scientists predict truly alarming changes to various African
waterways. UK government researcher Sir Nicholas Stern recently
predicts that a 3-6 degree Celsius increase in temperature in the next
few years will result in a 30 per cent to 50 per cent reduction in
water availability in Southern Africa. Scientists have discovered
evidence that droughts in West Africa lasted centuries in the past.
Their 2009 study suggests global warming could create conditions that
favour extreme droughts across much of Western Africa, home to
Africaï¿½s biggest reservoir (Akosomboï¿½s Lake Volta), among others.
East Africa has been drying since the mid-1980s, a trend that is
already shaving percentage points off GDP for the regionï¿½s states. A
new report, ï¿½Large Scale Hydropower, Renewable Energy and Adaptation
to Climate Changeï¿½ by AFREPREN states, ï¿½Kenyaï¿½s GDP is equivalent to US
$ 29.5 Billion; the estimated loss during the aforementioned drought-
induced power crisis was about 1.45% of GDP. This translates to US$442
million lost which could have been used to install 295 MW of new
renewable power capacity.ï¿½
Most of the Nile Basin states get more than 70 per cent of their
electricity from hydro. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
notes that there has already been ï¿½a reduction in runoff of 20%
between 1972 and 1987ï¿½ in the Nile, and ï¿½significant interruptions in
hydropower generation as a result of severe droughts.ï¿½ Even though
some parts of Africa are expected to receive more rain, that increase
is expected to be overwhelmed by an increase in temperature across the
continent, which will lead to higher evaporation rates.
A 2006 study by climate experts at the University of Cape Town
revealed that even a small decrease in Africaï¿½s rainfall could
drastically reduce river flows, affecting a quarter of the continent.
For example, a 10 per cent reduction in rain over the Johannesburg
area could lead to a 70 per cent drop in the Orange River's levels. In
parts of northern Africa, river water levels would drop more than 50
per cent. ï¿½It's like erasing large sections of the rivers from the
map,'' said Maarten de Wit, who headed up the study.
MISSING THE BOAT
Numerous African hydro projects have been put forth with little or no
regard to whether they are the best option for meeting citizensï¿½
energy needs. Electricity from large hydropower will not reach the
majority of Africans, who live far from the power grid and to whom
expanding the grid would be prohibitively expensive. Large hydro
projects increase a nationï¿½s electricity supply in big increments, an
inefficient way to address the gradual increases in market demands
typical of African economies.
Big, centralised hydro dams also spur the development of costly long-
distance regional electricity grids. The recipients and beneficiaries
of the electrons flowing over long distances are not generally
Africa's unelectrified majority but urban centres and large, often
foreign-owned industries. Such projects are not the most practical way
to improve access for new customers, especially not for the rural
areas most in need of electrification. Wider distribution of modern
energy services could bring enormous benefits for health, education
and livelihoods to the majority of Africaï¿½s rural population involved
in such activities as small-scale agriculture, but for now the
priority is clearly on industrial expansion and mega-projects.
The example of DR Congo is instructive. In a country of 66 million
people, only 6 per cent have access to electricity, despite two large
dams on the Congo River. The national power utility, SNEL, serves just
over 400,000 customers, but almost half of the electricity is consumed
by just 20 large clients. The Congolese government has set a highly
aggressive target to provide 60 per cent access to electricity by
2025. But given population growth projections, this would require an
estimated 400,000 new connections every year. Rising rehabilitation
costs for the two dams (both in disrepair) and momentum to develop
future large dams are draining investments which could achieve the
domestic electrification target. Investments in decentralised power
supply projects, including small- and medium-scale hydro across the
country, could more evenly reach the population.
LEADING BY BAD EXAMPLE
Ethiopia is fast becoming Africaï¿½s poster child for bad-dam
development. Not only is the Ethiopian economy on track to become a
ï¿½hydrological hostageï¿½ due to its almost total reliance on high-risk
hydropower (85 per cent now, jumping to 95 per cent with its current
slate of dams). Its master energy plan calls for US$3 billion in new
investments, most in new big dams.
Ethiopiaï¿½s Gibe III Dam, now being built on the Omo River, is the most
poorly planned major hydropower project being built on the continent
today. The government has cut corners in its preparation, increasing
its risks of economic and technical failure, and has done next to
nothing to reduce the project's massive ecological and social
footprint. The dam will change forever the Lower Omo River Valley,
homeland of half a million farmers, herders and fishermen.
The dam will affect ecosystems and disrupt communities all the way to
the world's largest desert lake, Turkana, downstream in Kenya. An
oasis of biodiversity in a harsh desert, Lake Turkana, a World
Heritage site, supports more than a quarter of a million Kenyans and
rich animal life. The Omo River accounts for 80-90 per cent of the
lake's inflow. That will be curtailed by half as the dam fills, and
reduced thereafter by evaporation from the massive reservoir. The
project is also expected to lead to large diversions of water from the
river for huge agribusiness operations. Lake Turkana may not survive
Such outcomes should have been predicted in project analysis, but
Ethiopia started construction before proper studies were done.
Ethiopian government officials told the BBC that proper environmental
studies were simply ï¿½luxurious preconditions.ï¿½
Currently, some four million Kenyans depend on food aid in the current
drought. Ethiopia has had five major droughts since 1980. In 2003,
Ethiopiaï¿½s power supply was held hostage by severe drought, forcing
sudden and severe power cuts that lasted six months, and costing US
$200 million in annual productivity. A drought-crippled Gibe III would
bring a sea of red ink to Ethiopia and lead to blackouts and economic
consequences for regional governments that buy its electricity.
African nations have many better alternatives to big, destructive
dams. A few examples:
GEOTHERMAL: Tapping hot water reserves underground is an excellent
option for much of East Africa and other nations. Achim Steiner, UN
Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, says, ï¿½There are
least 4,000MW of geothermal electricity ready for harvesting along the
Rift. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order
to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on
polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels.ï¿½ UN figures show that Africa
has tapped less than 0.6 percent of its geothermal. Kenya is the
exception, with 10% of its electricity now coming from geothermal.
SOLAR: Africaï¿½s potential is nearly limitless. To give just one
example, a study co-sponsored by my organization shows that
Mozambiqueï¿½s huge and virtually unexploited solar potential is about
1.49 million GWh ï¿½ thousands of times more than the countryï¿½s current
annual energy demand. And this power is distributed evenly across the
country. Exploiting this energy would benefit the more than 80% of
Mozambiqueï¿½s population that is now off-grid.
ENERGY EFFICIENCY: There is huge potential for reducing energy use.
For example, South Africa, the main client for the bulk of the
electricity from the planned Mphanda Nkuwa Dam in Mozambique, could
quickly save 3-5 times the amount of Mozambiqueï¿½s entire electricity
consumption. Energy savings can be found even in low-use countries. In
fact, putting efficiency measures in place now for growing economies
means there will be more to share with those currently without access
to electricity, and saves money to invest in other pressing needs.
ï¿½Developing countries, which will account for 80 per cent of global
energy demand growth up to 2020, could cut their demand by more than
half using existing technologies to improve energy efficiency,
according to McKinsey Global Institute. Efficiency is the cheapest
energy source of all.
WIND: Wind potential is also high in many parts of Africa, and is
finally beginning to be developed (new large projects are underway in
Kenya and Egypt, for example).
CO-GEN: The production of electricity from steam, heat, or other
energy sources as a by-product of another industrial process is well-
suited to many African nations. AFRPREN estimates that Africa could
get 20% of its electricity from co-gen. Mauritius now gets almost half
of its electricity from co-gen plants using mostly sugar cane waste.
Diversifying Africa's energy sector would help its climate-adaptation
efforts in key ways: It would de-emphasise reliance on erratic
rainfall for electricity, reduce conflict over water resources, and
protect river-based ecosystems and the many benefits they bring. And
it would share the wealth with the half a billion Africans now living
in the dark.
CASE STUDY: HOW DAMS AFFECT WATER SUPPLY
Most rural Africans are directly dependent on surface water ï¿½ rivers,
wetlands, springs and lakes ï¿½ for their water supply. Today, 20
African countries experience severe water scarcity and another 12 will
be added in the next 25 years. As the climate changes, free-flowing,
healthy rivers will become an even more valued resource than they are
today. Dams are expected to affect water quality and quantity for
millions of downstream users. A few ways that dams harm water supply
By trapping river-borne nutrients, dams can lead to the growth of
toxic algaes. Massive algal blooms in reservoirs in the ex-USSR, South
Africa, and California have rendered reservoirs unfit to drink.
Four hydro dams in California have nearly killed off the fisheries of
the Klamath River, and made the river unsafe for drinking or swimming.
Water stored for months or even years behind a major dam may become
lethal to most life in the reservoir and in the river for many
kilometres below the dam. Reservoirs that also receive treated
effluents from upstream towns and cities are more apt to have this
Dams also lead to riverbed deepening for tens or even hundreds of
kilometers below the reservoir. Riverbed deepening can lower the
groundwater table along a river, threatening vegetation and local
wells in the floodplain and requiring crop irrigation in places where
there was previously no need.
Tropical reservoirs are particularly prone to colonization by aquatic
plants. In addition to causing other problems, mats of floating plants
can lower reservoir levels. Losses of water from evaporation and
transpiration in weed-covered reservoirs can be up to 6 times higher
than those from evaporation in open waters.
Because they greatly increase the surface area of water exposed to the
sun, dams can increase the evaporation of huge amounts of water. About
170 cubic kilometres of water evaporates from the world's reservoirs
every year, more than 7 percent of the total amount of freshwater
consumed by all human activities. The annual average of 11.2 cubic
kilometres of water evaporated from Nasser Reservoir behind the High
Aswan Dam is around 10 percent of the water stored in the reservoir
and is roughly equal to the total withdrawals of water for residential
and commercial use throughout Africa. The proposed Epupa Dam reservoir
would have evaporated more water than the city of Windhoek uses in a
Rising salinity (which ruins the land for farming) is another water-
scarcity risk from large reservoirs. The massive amounts of
evaporation from the reservoirs behind Hoover and the other dams on
the Colorado ï¿½ one third of the river's flow is evaporated from
reservoirs ï¿½ is one of the reasons why that river's salinity has risen
to damaging and costly levels. High salt concentrations are poisonous
to aquatic organisms and corrode pipes and machinery.
Dams change the timing, amount and chemical composition of a river's
flow, leading to dramatic changes to groundwater-storing floodplains
and wetlands. Such changes can also lead to the destruction of
forests, which among other things help regulate the local climate. The
forest on the floodplain of Kenya's Tana River appears to be dying out
as it loses its ability to regenerate because of the reduction in high
floods due to a series of dams upstream. The Lower Zambezi has lost
much of its rich floodplain and wetlands due to upstream dams, with
wide-ranging effects throughout the ecosystem.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Lori Pottinger has for 16 years worked on the Africa campaigns for
International Rivers. Terri Hathaway contributed to this article.
* This article is part of a special issue on water and water
privatisation in Africa produced as a joint initiative of the
Transnational Institute, Ritimo and Pambazuka News. This special issue
is being published in English and in French.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment
online at Pambazuka News.
 A map of Africaï¿½s hydrodependency, see http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/5808
 ï¿½West African Droughts are the Norm, not an Anomaly,ï¿½ http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114583
 For more on algae in SA reservoirs: The incidence of in South
African waterbodies: http://www.csir.co.za/news/2009/06/predict_algal.html)
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