The Wrong Climate for an African Dam Boom

Desertification of African soil
Desertification of African soil

Africa is the least electrified place in the world, with just a fraction of its citizens benefiting from the miracle of electricity. Solving this huge problem is made more difficult by widespread poverty, poor governance, and because a large majority of Africa's people live far from the grid, which greatly adds to the cost of bringing electricity to them.

Under these vexing conditions, there are no second chances for electrifying Africa: we must get it right. Yet the World Bank and 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 dams across the continent. World Bank energy specialist Reynold Duncan recently told an energy conference that Africa needs to triple its investments in energy systems, and is pushing for a hydropower rush on a massive scale:

"In Zambia, we have the potential of about 6000 megawatts (MW), in Angola we have 6000 MW, and about 12,000 MW in Mozambique - we have a lot of megawatts down here before we even go up to the Congo," he said.

The World Bank official said the governments and investors should not hesitate to look at riskier assets such as hydropower, adding that only 5% of the continent's hydro potential had been tapped.

Risky is right. New African dams are being built with no examination of how climate change will affect them, and many existing dams are already suffering from drought-caused power shortages. Given that climate change is expected to dramatically alter many African rivers, creating both worse droughts (some southern African rivers could disappear entirely) and floods (the latter causing safety concerns for many poorly maintained megadams). In this climate, the proposed frenzy of African dam building could be literally disastrous.

Dams are hugely costly, too: just developing one of these dams - the Mphanda Nkuwa in Mozambique - is expected to cost at least US$2 billion. Imagine investing that much on one project, in a country whose average gross national income per capita is around $360.

These huge projects are doing little to bridge the electricity divide in Africa. With the majority of the continent's population living far from existing electricity grids, what is needed is a major decentralized-power rollout of renewables and small power plants to build local economies from the ground up, not the top down.

Geothermal potential of the East African countries
Geothermal potential of the East African countries
There is another source of African water-power that would do far less harm, reduce Africa's already dangerous hydro-dependency habit, and meet this need for decentralized energy: geothermal, which taps steam deposits in the earth to power turbines. As the UN notes, Africa has an abundance of geothermal potential. Says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director:

"There are least 4,000MW of 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. From the place where human-kind took its first faltering steps is emerging one of the answers to its continued survival on this planet," he added.

Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the GEF, said: "Overcoming the economic and technical hurdles to renewable energy generation is part of our shared responsibility. The work in the Rift Valley is demonstrating that geothermal is not only technologically viable but cost effective for countries in Africa where there is an overall potential of at least 7,000MW."

UN figures show that Africa has tapped less than 0.6 percent of its geothermal.

It's time for the World Bank to stop spewing hot air about why Africa should continue down this dangerous path of hydro-dependency, and help Africans tap into less climate-risky, more reliable, and less destructive energy options such as geothermal, solar, energy efficiency and wind-power. (And instead of offering loans for climate mitigation, as the World Bank recently decided to do, developing countries should be given grants for adaptation, and not be forced to pay for the North's emissions.)

Diversifying Africa's energy sector would help its climate-adaptation efforts in key ways: it would de-emphasize reliance on erratic rainfall for electricity, reduce conflict over water resources, and protect river-based ecosystems and the many benefits they bring.

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A version of this blog appears on Huffington Post.