I recently made a presentation on this subject for my academic symposium at school, everyone made a slideshow on a topic that interests them and that relates to their intended university course (which for me is physical Geography). I became aware that a lot of people are against hydropower and reservoir creation – mostly because of information from the kayaking community – and decided to research whether or not hydropower activity in countries like Uganda benefits groups that I might not be aware of who perhaps have priorities which conflict with kayakers. I’ve converted my slideshow and script into this article, I hope you enjoy it and that it makes you think a bit more deeply about this issue.

The world undertook a dam-building boom in the latter half of the twentieth century which was partly responsible for an increase in the global food supply and industrialisation, many African countries hope that they can emulate this. The picture on the left was taken by a NASA satellite and shows Africa at night, you can see all the lights from cities and towns etc. Africa seems quite dark in the picture, especially in comparison to Europe. This is because electrification rates are very low across Africa, with electricity demand being much higher than supply (as you can see from the graph on the right) the current electricity generation capacity is only enough to theoretically guarantee 33% of the African population access to energy. Hydropower seems like the perfect solution given that the continent holds enormous hydroelectric potential and less than 10% of it is exploited.

Well-planned hydroelectric projects can result in considerable economic benefits including the provision of local jobs and hypothetical self-sufficiency when it comes to energy supply. It resolves problems of accessing energy, while reducing the use of damaging fossil fuels like coal plants in Southern Africa and oil-fired generators in Nigeria plus it is considerably more reliable than other renewable energy options.

The map on the right shows the location of all existing hydropower plants in Africa (the black dots), of which there are more than 980 significant dams. These existing dams have assisted economic development throughout the continent as greater electrification helps to drive industrialisation and supports the creation of more secondary and tertiary industries. Ethiopia views itself as the “water tower of Africa”, due to the enormous hydropower potential held in its rivers (estimated at 45,000MW), enough to meet the demand for almost all of sub-Saharan Africa and if tapped it would bring considerable development/investment opportunities to Ethiopia.

China has already shown interest in a number of dam projects in Africa – in 2006, Nigeria accepted a $2.5 billion loan from China to finance the Mambilla hydropower dam and many African countries are also tripping over themselves to receive foreign investment which China is more than happy to provide. With a population of just under 1.5 billion people (roughly 20% of the global population) but only about 7% of the world’s freshwater (much of which is now unsafe to drink), China is in desparate need of clean drinking water.

I am now going to talk about the Bujagali Dam in Uganda to illustrate the many drawbacks of dam building in Africa. I think it’s easier to focus on a specific example rather than to generalise – many dams have similar issues to the one dam about to discuss…

The Bujagali hydropower dam is located on the River Nile in Uganda as shown on the map on the right. It was initially approved in 1994 to increase power production and access to electricity in the country while simultaneously reducing cost, but even though construction began in 2007 the project faced numerous economic, environmental and social challenges including investigations over bribery which resulted in it taking 18 years to complete. AES Nile Power was the first company to manage the project but in 2001 a World Bank inspection panel found it to have “performance shortfalls as well as evidence of corruption’ resulting in the company pulling out of the project. In 2005 the project was restarted jointly by 2 new companies and was eventually finished in 2012 however with some major shortfalls:

  • The total cost of the project increased from a predicted $580 million to $902 million upon completion. Independent investigations by the Ugandan parliamentary committee on energy put the dam’s actual cost at $1.3 billion.
  • Unfortunately the average cost of electricity increased after commissioning the dam to the highest of any hydropower facility in Africa, making it unaffordable for the mere 14% of Uganda’s population who are actually connected to the national grid.
  • The maximum amount of electricity that the dam can produce is only 121MW which is less than half of what was initially proposed…
  • …and there was a serious impact socially and environmentally with approximately 8,700 people resettled and Lake Victoria is now at its lowest level since 1951 causing serious harm to water supply systems and local communities because the lake’s catchment now only supports around one-third of the total population of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania combined. 

While the government demonstrated commendable commitment to the project and had clear objectives throughout construction, the feasibility of the dam was always questionable and the project never had public support begging the question – why was it ever started?

Africa’s pro-dam groups have a clear message: they say hydropower is cheap, clean, renewable and an indigenous power source, however many would argue the opposite:

  • With a changing climate, many African nations are dangerously dependent on hydropower for most of their electricity which is one of the riskiest investments in a warming world. The graph on the left shows how between 1997 and 2009 the average rainfall in Kenya has decreased by 200mm each June and this is a widespread problem across Africa. An example of this would be how in 2016, an unprecedented drought in southern Africa induced extensive power blackouts that hamstrung the economies of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  • Like I mentioned briefly about the Bujagali dam, Africa’s large dams have often been built at the expense of rural communities, who have been forced to sacrifice their lands and livelihoods and have received few benefits. Hydro dams in Sudan, Senegal and Ghana have left a trail of “development–induced poverty” in their wake. Most of the time hydropower projects are not based on the science or economics of building the dam, it’s a political choice which is often motivated by corruption and money.
  • Funnily enough, while many rivers in Africa might intially seem ideal for dam building, African rivers generally carry a high level of sediment (the result of heavy seasonal rains) which means that dams have shorter lifespans and require more frequent repair than those in other parts of the world resulting in higher maintenance costs and a higher chance of failure.

Why is all this important? Well, something must be done to solve Africa’s power requirements and reduce necessary foreign aid, but if dams aren’t the right way to go about it (maybe even hindering future renewable power programs across the continent) and nearly 150 large dams are proposed across Africa (shown on the map to the right) a solution must be found quickly before we reach a point where all major rivers on the continent are stoppered, while only those in power benefit.

Dam activists in Africa have helped put a spotlight on whether large dams are an appropriate development model for helping the African population. In Uganda for example, activists have pressed for more appropriate energy options that would meet the needs of the 86% of Uganda’s population who cannot afford grid electricity and have helped spread the idea that wind and solar plants may be the future…

  • Wind power is the world’s fastest growing energy source, with an average annual growth rate of approximately 24% wind power is already cost competitive with fossil fuels. Kenya has launched Africa’s largest wind power farm (which will increase the country’s electricity supply by 13%) in a bid to boost electricity generating capacity and to meet the country’s ambitious goal of 100% green energy.
  • However it is solar power that has the most potential: South Africa is already leading in solar power and it’s still experiencing rapid growth. Africa receives many more hours of bright sunlight over the course of the year than any other continent because of its low latitude, but despite the large solar potential, the presence of solar power in Africa’s energy sector is still very low in comparison to hydropower, mostly because with conflict as widespread as it is, investors aren’t hurrying to gamble money in the region, but it is my opinion that this may be the best way for African countries to become self-sufficient power wise with the necessary planning.

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