Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dams will not solve all Africa’s energy problems

Dams will not solve all Africa's energy problems
Opinion piece by Rudo Sanyanga
Business Day (South Africa), September 4, 2014
www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/2014/09/04/dams-will-not-solve-all-africas-energy-problems

[This commentary also appeared in Swedish by Svenska Dagbladet on
September 3, 2014, at
www.svd.se/opinion/brannpunkt/fel-att-ge-pris-for-gardagens-teknik_3876786.svd.]

THE world's water experts convene in Stockholm on Thursday where King
Carl Gustav will present the city's Water Prize to John Briscoe, a
Harvard professor and former water manager at the World Bank. After many
years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says he is
"controversial and proud of it". Indeed, the jury's choice raises
contentious questions about how best to manage water resources for the
shared benefit of all.

Since the turn of the century, John Briscoe has been the world's
pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In
the 20th century, Europe developed approximately 80 percent of its
hydropower potential, while Africa has still only exploited 8 percent of
its own. It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds
for more dam building in Africa now.

Africa has tried to follow Europe's path to industrial development
before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other
institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were
supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and
1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and
the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples
of this approach.

Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross
on Africa's development. Their costs spiraled out of control creating
massive debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the
expectations. Their benefits were concentrated on mining companies and
urban middle classes, while the rural population has been left high and
dry. Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on
hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made
the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.

In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole
population in Sub-Saharan Africa. After tens of billions of dollars in
foreign aid have been spent on energy projects, 69 percent of the
continent's population continues to live in the dark. Prioritising the
needs of mining companies and big cities over the rural populations, the
World Bank's latest dam projects in Africa will further entrench this
energy apartheid.

Meanwhile, the communities which were displaced by the Kariba and Inga
dams continue to struggle for just compensation decades after the
projects were built. Because poor people pay the price but don't reap
the benefits of these investments, the independent World Commission on
Dams has found that dams "can effectively take a resource from one group
and allocate it to another". The Tonga people, who were displaced by the
Kariba Dam and suffered starvation as a consequence, have to this date
remained without clean water or electricity despite the huge reservoir
at their doorsteps.

Luckily solutions that don't sacrifice one group of people for the
benefits of another are available today. Wind, solar and geothermal
energy have become competitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, these
energy sources don't depend on centralised electric grids, but can serve
the needs of the rural populations wherever they live. This is why the
International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy
aid be devoted to decentralised renewable energy sources if the goal of
sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met. A diverse,
decentralised portfolio of renewable energy projects will also make
African countries more resilient to climate change than putting all eggs
into the basket of a few mega-dams.

Just because Europe developed with large dams in the 20th century
doesn't mean Africa has to do the same today. In the telecom sector,
Africa has successfully leapfrogged Europe's landline model and relied
on cell phone companies to provide access to the majority of the
population. Like cell phone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropower
projects can be built quickly, close to where people need them, and
without major environmental impacts.

Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, but Africa's
future is lit by the sun. We appreciate that John Briscoe has
reinvigorated an important debate about large dams. But we hope that in
the coming years, the Stockholm Water Prize will celebrate the solutions
of the future rather than the past.

A native of Zimbabwe, Rudo Sanyanga holds a Ph.D. in Aquatic Systems
Ecology from Stockholm University. She is the Africa Program Director of
International Rivers and is based in Pretoria.
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