Hydropower in Africa must benefit the poor | WWF

Hydropower in Africa must benefit the poor

Posted on 06 March 2006    
Woman carrying bucket of water
Farmers carrying water from a remote water pond in Malawi, Africa.

Godalming, UK – A report published today by WWF, Oxfam and WaterAid reveals 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 2 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 a 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.

“Large hydropower plants such as the Kariba and Cahora Bassa Dams on the Zambezi River have brought economic benefits but have also damaged freshwater ecosystems, which has in turn affected fisheries, said Dr Ute Collier, Dams and Hydropower Manager for WWF and report author.

"In the case of the Zambezi River, the economic losses of reduced prawn fisheries have been estimated at US$10 to 20 million per annum, without compensation for the affected fishermen. In some cases, the 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.

“Large hydropower plants are rarely the best option to bring electricity to the rural poor for whom stand-alone energy options such as biomass, solar and small hydropower can be a better alternative," said John Magrath, Programme Researcher at Oxfam. "While industrial and urban needs are important, decision-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 rise, despite new investment in large projects.”

David Redhouse, Policy 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 reduction, these 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 reductions, affecting the viability of hydropower plants.


• The World Commission on Dams was established in 1998 as an independent, international, multi-stakeholder process to address what had become one of the most controversial areas of infrastructure development. One of the aims of the Commission was to produce an independent assessment of the performance of dams. Furthermore, it was charged with developing internationally accepted standards, guidelines and criteria for decision-making in the planning, design, construction, monitoring operation and decommissioning of dams. On 16 November 2000, Nelson Mandela helped launch the report of the WCD. The 380-page report addressed the benefits and impacts of dams or, in Mandela’s words, “one of the battlegrounds in the sustainable development arena.” The WCD was disbanded after the report was launched.

• Despite a growing number of electrification programmes, the International Energy Agency expects an increase in the number of Africans lacking electricity to increase from 535 million now to 586 million by 2030, mostly in rural areas. While electrification rates are expected to increase from 36% currently to 58% by 2030, a large proportion of the population is expected to remain without access. The number of people relying on traditional biomass for cooking and heating is expected to increase by almost one-third

For further information:
Alexandra Hartridge, Press Officer
Tel: +44 01483 412347
E-mail: ahartridge@wwf.org.uk

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