A report published by WWF, Oxfam and WaterAid says that hydropower has the potential to contribute to reducing Africa's energy poverty, but calls for a greater emphasis in energy policies on providing benefits for the poorest people and reducing damage to ecosystems.
The report Meeting Africa's Energy Needs - the Costs and Benefits of Hydropower coincides with the start of the African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development in South Africa. Ministers and officials responsible for energy and water as well as representatives from donor agencies, industry and civil society are expected to discuss how hydropower could promote sustainable development, regional integration and poverty eradication in Africa.
The report details two case studies from Zambia and Kenya that demonstrate how hydropower can deliver maximum benefits with minimal negative impact. However, it also warns that Africa has a legacy of environmental and social problems linked to existing hydropower plants - large hydropower plants rarely serve the needs of the very poorest people - and therefore urges cautious approach.
Decision-makers at the conference should follow the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) as a guide to good practice. These recommendations aim to ensure that dams are economically and environmentally sustainable by ensuring that construction plans are given public approval, comprehensive assessments of other options are made and that the economic benefits of any dam are shared with local communities.
Dr Ute Collier, Dams and Hydropower Manager for WWF and report author said: Large hydropower plants such as the Kariba and Cahora Bassa Dams on the Zambezi River have brought economic benefits but have also damaged freshwater ecosystemswhich has in turn affected fisheries. In the case of the Zambezi Riverthe economic losses of reduced prawn fisheries have been estimated at $10 to 20 million per annumwithout compensation for the affected fishermen. In some casesthe devastating impacts have still not been adequately addressed decades later."
More than half a billion people have no access to modern energy services in Africa. This means no refrigeration for medicines or food as well as no effective lighting. Improving this situation is vital if the UN Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty rates and improving health by 2015 are to be achieved.
John MagrathProgramme Researcher at Oxfam said: "Large hydropower plants are rarely the best option to bring electricity to the rural poor for whom stand-alone energy options such as biomasssolar and small hydropower can be a better alternative. While industrial and urban needs are importantdecision-makers must give greater priority to the needs of the poorest. It is unacceptable that the number of Africans without access to electricity is continuing to risedespite new investment in large projects."
David RedhousePolicy Officer for WaterAid added: "Three hundred million of the poorest Africans are already deprived of safe drinking water. Unless hydropower schemes give greater priority to poverty reductionthese people face losing even more of their fair share of access to water resources by not getting the electricity that those resources could generate."
The report suggests that the effects of future climate change should also be taken into account when deciding whether to invest in hydropower in Africa. Droughts already regularly disrupt electricity supplies and it is likely that in parts of the continent river flows will see significant reductionsaffecting the viability of hydropower plants.
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