As Africa warms up join the hydroelectirc dams race, some crucial issues are worthy of attention. How much of some SWOT analysis has been done before joining this rat race? What are the anticipations, the expectations and the fears, real or imagined? With what resources, and at what costs, are these grandiose projects to be established and maintained? And what safeguard measures are being considered as preventive measures? What coping strategies are being contemplated in case of consequences, particularly the unintended? Or, are African countries venturing into dams proliferation projects as a “me too” exercise? The concerns here that we must face up to, it must be emphasised, are not raised to oppose the march towards development or to suggest that Africa must remain backward.
Without doubt, Africa needs to do everything possible to increase the electricity generation to power the economy across the entire continent; but how this is done matters a great deal. Let’s examine few anecdotes while putting the complexity of the situation in perspectives.
While arguments purporting that hydropower would avoid 50 billion tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere sound appealing, from environmental perspective, it could be asked also whether or not the same hydropower installations could present low frequency but high impact adverse occurrences in relation to the associated huge dam projects.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in a report, lamented over the diversion of water sources and its effects on the Aral Sea in Central Asia. It described its con- sequential result in “a vast desert and a multitude of environmental, economic and social problems” which came “at the expense of the South Aral Sea which was starved of water flow when the Kok-Aral dam was constructed.” Juxtaposing this UNEP’s finding with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13, in its 2018 atlas of SDG, which emphasises taking ur- gent action to combat climate change and its impact, could it be correctly reckoned as a tacit agreement that SDG13 recognises that “further climate change is inevitable,” while also conceding that the degree of change depends on the path of future emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases?
The SDG 13 and Paris accord of COP21 therefore need to be re-examined in the light of the scope of their coverage, considering the complex operating environments now and in the future. The 2018 atlas of SDG’s affirmation that “emissions depend on policy choices, social and economic processes, and technology” also warrants the rhetorical question as to where dams fit into in this assertion. Dams’ proliferation is encouraged by big lenders and development finance institutions, in addition to national and regional political leaders’ preferences. The World Bank and other international financiers like dams because they seem to offer large-scale solutions to energy and water shortages.
Grand Inga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of Africa’s most politically volatile and corruption-plagued countries, is listed as a priority project of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), South African Power Pool (SAPP) and the World Energy Council. In 2013 and 2014, the African Development Bank and the World Bank approved $141m in grants for the preparation of the $14bn project. The massive dam is part of a greater vision by the international economic community to develop a power grid across Africa that will spur the continent’s industrial economic development.
The Grand Inga, arguably the world’s largest hydropower scheme, has long been touted by the World Bank and the World Energy Council as a model for Africa’s energy sector. With a projected generating capacity of between 39,000 and 44,000 megawatts (MW), this project is expected to surpass China’s Three Gorges dam system by its output estimated to be equivalent to those of 20 large nuclear power stations.
The $14bn Inga 3, first part of the mega-project, being fast tracked by the DRC government involves a large dam and a 4, 800MW hydro-electric power plant. Subsequent phases, together costing about $100bn could eventually span the Congo River, the world’s second largest by volume after the Amazon.
Between DRC and Ethiopia, Af- rica’s power generation ambition is expected to lead to a quantum jump in energy supplies. This is expected to boost industrial and economic development in the regions under coverage. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), formerly known as the Millennium Dam and sometimes referred to as Hidase Dam, is another grandiose 6,450 megawatts mega dam project. GERD, located in western Ethiopia, 40 km from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, is another of the largest hydro project in Africa, expected to have a total volume of 74,000 cubic meters upon completion.
With the construction of GERD now about 60 per cent complete, GERD has been billed as a landmark project signalling Ethiopia’s renaissance that Ethiopia is financing by a different business model, from entirely domestic funds through involvement of the diaspora in nation building exercise, with the bond sale. It is being financed by selling $56 mil- lion bond to the diaspora community, although the project is expected to need $4.7 billion to complete.
This gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia has been under construction since April 1, 2011.
Kainji Dam, across the Niger River in Niger State of Northern Nigeria, is another historic dam project in Africa that came into existence within few years of post-independence.
The dam gets its water supply from Kainji Lake with total installed capacity of 960 megawatts. Kainji Lake itself has a surface water level of approximately 1,243 Km2 with a maximum depth of 12.1 metres. The dam, designed to have a generating capacity of 960 megawatts (1,290,000 hp), however, operates below capacity and generates electricity for all the large cities in Nigeria, while some of the electricity is sold to the neighbouring country of Niger. Expansion of population over the years meant that Kainji was no longer sufficient to serve the country. In addition, occasional droughts have made the Niger’s water flow unpredictable, diminishing the dam’s electrical output. More recent additions in Nigeria include Shiroro and Jebba among many others of varying sizes and capacities, for irrigation and power generation.
The Kainji dam in Nigeria and the Kariba dam which straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe were the earliest dam projects that have helped to power Africa for over half a century. The new dams springing up elsewhere in Africa appear to cast long shadows over the older ones which desperately need attention if they are to retain their usefulness and prevent catastrophes. The Kariba Dam, priding itself as the largest man-made reservoir in the world, at a height of 128m and with a crest length of 617m, has the capacity of holding 181 billion cubic metres of water. Constructed across the Zambezi River between 1956 and 1959 and commissioned in 1960, the dam has been central to regional energy security and economic development ever since.
The Kariba Reservoir, supplying water to two underground hydro- power stations with a total capacity of 1830MW, generates more than 10,035 GWh of electricity annually. The North Bank Power Station, operated by ZESCO in Zambia, has an installed capacity of 1,080 MW. The South Bank Power Station, operated by ZPC in Zimbabwe, currently has an installed capacity of 750 MW, with projects underway to increase this to 1,050 MW. But the status of dams doesn’t remain static over time. The dynamic nature of such gigantic structures underscores their susceptibility to deterioration.
After more than 50 years of providing power for the Southern African Region, the Kariba Dam, in dire condition, now requires a series of rehabilitation works for its continued safe operation. The programme, to be implemented over the next ten years, becomes necessary if the dam’s safely and minimal interruptions to power generation are to be guaranteed. The New Yorker, a US daily, on February 2, 2016, wrote about Kariba Dam that “the Zambezi River Basin, on which the dam sits, is the most susceptible of Africa’s thirteen basins to exceptional droughts and floods, and climate change is intensifying both.”
The Lagdo dam in Cameroon pos- es existential dangers to communities westward along the bank of the Benue River downstream in the neighbouring Nigeria. The almost annual ritual of releasing excess water at Lagdo dam in an apparent bid to save the dam from collapse imperils the lives, property and agricultural output of thousands of people on Nigeria side that has the longest stretch of the Benue River. The annual experience of excess water during the peak of rains signposts an ominous portent of imminent and possibly sudden col- lapse of the dam, the result of which could lead to widespread flooding, collapse of roads, bridges and houses and inundation of many communities in Nigeria anytime soon.
The 2012 flood that destroyed farms, households and killed 49 Nigerians significantly diminished that year’s food production and warranted emergency response that drew no less than $89 million (17 billion Nigerian naira at that time) of central government’s support for the displaced population.