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How managing water resources differently can transform Africa’s energy reality

21 March 2014
Written by: 
Dr. Akissa Bahri

(En anglais) March 22 marks World Water Day and this year we are invited to reflect on the water and energy nexus. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the water and energy connection, is how little access there is to energy in Africa, and how different the situation could be if we would better leverage the continent’s enormous hydropower potential.  

Africa is said to be “energy poor” and this is one of the biggest problems standing in the way of everything we are trying to do to empower the continent. Simply put, inadequate access to energy cripples domestic, commercial, industrial and agricultural productivity, and hampers economic development.

When I am asked to explain how access to energy in Africa compares to the rest of the world, I often direct people to the well-known NASA satellite photo of the world at night. The image is so powerful, it speaks for itself.

The picture shows the African continent cast in complete darkness, with patches of light spread out over the most populated urban centres.  

Given that a majority of Africans lives in rural areas – roughly 600 million people – this picture reveals that energy is unevenly distributed and that a very large majority of people have limited to no access to electricity.

In fact, the African continent has the lowest electrification rate of all regions. It is estimated that only 42% of the total population has access to electricity, compared with 75% in the developing world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the ratio is much lower at approximately 30%, and as low as 14% in rural areas.

This tells us that 82% of the people living in rural Sub-Saharan Africa are energy poor. That’s reality for 492 million people – the equivalent of the combined populations of Canada, France and the USA.

And, when available, power, from any source, is often costly for users, and polluting (such as kerosene, which is both expensive and carbon-intensive), or unreliable. Interruptions of network services can be common, frequent and frustrating, as they complicate lives and the management of energy-intensive activities, whether domestic or commercial. But, as I suggested earlier, it’s not for lack of resources or solutions.

About 32% of Africa’s energy production comes from hydropower: this ranks hydropower in second place right after oil. However, less than 10% of its hydropower potential has been leveraged against 75% in Europe.

Yet there is plenty of water to develop hydro-electricity. Africa is crossed by a complex network of 60 river basins with significant hydropower potential. However, the continent’s hydrological legacy is such that all countries share at least one of these river basins, with 13 shared by more than five riparian states, and this is often a source of problems issues.

Developing hydropower in Africa necessarily implies close transboundary collaboration and water diplomacy. Competing concerns and interests beyond electrification often have to be discussed when considering hydro-electric power generation. Sacrifices and compromises are needed and are often only agreed after years of negotiations. 

And then there is the issue of financing – who will pay? Mega dams involve monumental costs and equally important financial and social risks.

Hydropower has traditionally been financed by the public sector. But as governments face tight financial constraints, there is a need to attract private-sector financing through private public partnerships, the type of cooperation that would help mitigate the risks perceived by private investors.

Ideally, each country should develop institutional and human capacities for managing water efficiently, and for developing and adopting legal instruments governing the use of shared waters at national, basin and regional levels.

At the African Water Facility, we find smaller dam projects embracing an integrated water resources management approach to be highly beneficial and a good alternative to larger projects, at least in the shorter term.  

Multi-purpose dams propose a more effective use of water so that none is wasted and every drop is used to bring multiple benefits. Being smaller, they pose lower financial risks and the promise of multiple shared benefits makes transboundary negotiations much easier.

This approach is particularly important and useful in rural areas where water, food and energy security is most at risk.

Multi-purpose dams can solve electricity issues and propose a long list of other benefits such as improving irrigation capacity for agriculture, stabilizing rivers to control floods, promoting the development of fisheries, and improving access to water supply through enhanced storage capacity. In addition to multi-purpose dams, there are other ways to use water to generate energy. 

The by-products of wastewater systems are an excellent and widely available source of energy. Derived from fecal sludge, biogas is a 100% renewable fuel with exceptional environmental socio-economic value, and a sustainable alternative to fossil-based fuels.

And if we are to talk about going green all the way, extracting water should been done differently as well. Solar and wind-powered water pumps are useful where grid electricity is unavailable and replace the more polluting carbon-intensive gas-powered pumps often used in remote areas.

Have a look at some of our projects in Ghana, the Nile Basin, along the Songwe River, and in Ethiopia to see how the African Water Facility promotes energy through improved water resources management.

Transforming African economies cannot happen without improving access to energy, which will inevitably require a paradigm shift in the way we manage water resources.

Image courtesy of NASA