Saturday, September 26, 2015

Drought, Hydropower, and Africa’s Energy Crisis - Diplomatic Courier

Written by Uju Okoye

It seems that only crises of a certain nature—usually terrorism or strongmen trampling on their country’s constitution—can draw the world’s attention to Africa. As such, it is unfair that the worst drought in a decade, which has put at risk almost ten percent of Southern Africa and left a record number of people in need of aid, has gone almost unnoticed.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, extended drought has caused the most severe conditions in nearly a quarter century. In neighboring nations—Zambia and Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Botswana—conditions are no better, and the region’s prevalent food insecurity has sent it to the precipice of a looming humanitarian crisis. The main rice crop in one Zambian district is decimated. South Africa’s maize production dropped so sharply that it annulled the country’s net exporter status after Johannesburg resorted to food imports to stave off famine.
While it is hard to envision a more pressing need than hunger, this famine is sadly amplified by yet another factor: power.
Across Africa, many countries are dependent on hydropower to meet their energy needs. Although millions of people still remain off the electrical power grid—in Lesotho, for example, only 21 percent have access to electricity, and some 22 percent in Zambia—the drought has dramatically affected power generation for domestic use as governments struggle to keep the lights on for industrial customers. That leaves South Africans, Zimbabweans, and others cut off for up to 16 hours a day. Worse, Botswanans marched through the streets of Gabarone earlier in September, demanding the resumption of steady water and electricity supplies, even if officials don’t expect to see them remedied before 2017, as its aging infrastructure needs urgent upgrades.
There’s even a technical term for the selective blackouts that governments have resorted to in their struggles to cope with soaring demand and underinvestment: load shedding. This is a last ditch option to prevent the entire grid from collapsing, by selectively shutting down supplies to different parts of the distributions region. In Zambia, that creates a circular, Kafkaesque scenario: low water levels lead to load shedding, which cuts off power from the pumps ensuring clean water to homes and business in Lusaka. In South Africa, load shedding translates to 100 days without power throughout the year. It feeds into the economy and leads to shortages of other commodities like LPG canisters, increased fire and sanitation risks, job cuts, and crippling industry shutdowns that compromise future growth and discourage foreign investment. These economic impacts in turn make it harder to buy food, cause drought-related refugees, and raise fears of social unrest—all consequences and patterns anticipated by climate change experts.
Cascading effects in African economies
Nowhere is the need to prioritize long-term, meaningful and sustainable energy policies truer than in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Between them lies Lake Kariba, the world’s largest manmade reservoir and the site of a hydropower plant that delivers half of Zambia’s energy and much of Zimbabwe’s. Low water levels have threatened a total shutdown by October, and have put at risk Zambia’s copper mines, already reeling from the combined effect of low cooper prices and decreasing Chinese demand as its economy crashes.
“This is serious, it could bring our economy to its knees,” Zambian analyst Maambo Hamaundu tells Reuters. “We wonder how the government expects to attract investment and grow the economy when it can hardly provide adequate electricity for the few businesses that are struggling to stay afloat,” says a Zimbabwean Newsday editorial, calling on the government to declare an state of emergency and insisting that the country find alternatives to the failing infrastructure of its colonial-era hydropower.
Indeed, the drought has underscored the degree to which Africa’s dependence on hydropower is both a blessing and a curse. Massive dam projects across Africa inherited from colonial times have limitations under the best of circumstances, in terms of keeping up with Africa’s growing population, energy demands and economic clout.
However, on one hand, just 8 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s hydropower potential has been developed, with a 2014 World Bank report even encouraged governments to strike up private public partnerships with the mining companies driving power demand in the region. But continued plans for hydropower use by nations need to take into consideration the potential conflicts that could arise in the long run, as global warming saps water supplies across the continent. Even if water wars have yet to come to pass, simmering tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over a planned dam make it painfully clear that African countries have to seek out energy alternatives.
The call for sustainable solutions
Given the African continent’s capacity for leapfrogging, it can and should bypass the obsolete fossil-fuel sources of the West, while engaging developed nations on long term solutions. In Zambia, utility companies are already encouraging consumers to conserve energy, and have distributed 2 million compact fluorescent lamps while ramping up their investment in solar plants.
There are also calls for Canadian and other owners of African-based businesses, especially in the power-hungry mines devoted to extracting African resources, to support the demand they create. To the extent that foreign firms have bought and operated these businesses, often at the expense of the environment and health of local communities, they have a moral obligation to invest in the solutions.
“Energy is life,” writes the editorial staff at Zambia’s Daily Mail, aware that the power crisis in drought-stricken southern Africa is inseparable from the increasing food insecurity and economic manifestations that climate conditions have caused. “Our survival will depend on how we interact commercially on the world arena because, like water, energy is life. The application of electricity affects every aspect of human endeavor.”

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