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Africa Too Dependent on Hydropower in Face of Climate Change

August 30, 2018

The African continent’s emphasis on new hydroelectric power could put it in serious trouble as climate change drives temperatures up and dries out waterways.

Ethiopian papyrus boats ("tankwa") ply the waters of the Blue Nile above the falls. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently in construction near where this was shot, will be the 7th largest hydroelectric power plant in the world when it is finished. It will deliver 6.45 GW of output electrical power. Photo: A.Davey, flckr, CC

According to Professor Declan Conway of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the environment, plans for southern and eastern Africa to double hydropower by 2030 could be a serious mistake.

The reason is climate change, with its increased heat and the prospect of more drought in the future. It is also a concern that is present here and now. Africa has already experienced extreme dry conditions in recent years which reduced electricity production from some of the existing dams.

According to Conway, that problem is likely to get worse in the near term. As he explained in connection with his presentation on this at the Royal Geographical Society in London, “Unpredictable changes in water availability clearly pose significant risks to the viability of hydropower plants, as well as the electricity security of the countries.” He went on to say that, “A single widespread drought could disrupt many countries at the same time, including those countries such as South Africa that are connected to the regional power pool but do not have many hydropower dams of their own.”

The problem is even more risky as more hydroelectric plants and dams are being built on the very same rivers and waterways that existing hydro facilities already make use of. As Africa’s need for more electrical power has grown, hydroelectric has been the clean power of choice for many countries to go to, both for the costs involved to set them up and their relative stability (of power delivery) compared to wind and solar options.

Unfortunately, some 80% of eastern Africa’s new planned hydroelectric power is coming from the Nile basin, and around 90% of southern Africa’s is coming from the Zambezi basin. As the waters flowing through those waterways diminishes as temperatures rise and rainfall cannot fill the loss, the net electrical power those basins can supply will drop.

The dependence on hydroelectric is also big, with southern and eastern African countries currently expected to increase their hydropower capacities by over a factor of two by 2030.

According to Professor Conwya, “The El Niño in 2015 and 2016 brought drought conditions to southern Africa and lowered water levels in dams so much that many areas experienced blackouts. If these countries build even more hydropower dams in the same river basins, they will all be at risk during future droughts, threatening further blackouts.”

Such droughts are already highly visible in many areas of Africa. South Africa’s Cape Town even made major headlines as residents there saw water supplies running out rapidly earlier in 2018. Plans were being made for what was referred to as “Day Zero”, so-called because it would have been the day when the government would have had to shut off water to most people in the area. For Cape Town, a combination of drastic usage restrictions coupled with replenishing rains which came at just the right time helped keep that day away for 2018.

With the continent so dependent on water for power as well, the continent will unfortunately need to diversify its renewable power options rapidly if it wants to avoid blackouts and drastic cutbacks in electrical power usage – even in the near future.

Copyright: North America Procurement Council Inc., PBC