Africa’s future depends on renewable energy sources

Large dams may still make sense in specific situations; wind, solar and geothermal energy have become competitive with hydropower. This is why the International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy aid be devoted to decentralised renewable energy sources if the goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met.

During this year’s World Water Week that took place on August 31-September 5 under the theme “Energy and Water”, experts from around the world convened in Stockholm where King Carl Gustav presented the city’s Water Prize to John Briscoe, a Harvard professor and former water manager at the World Bank.

A native of South Africa, John Briscoe went on a mission to oppose the World Commission on Dams 2000 Report that was highly critical of large dams, yet he had been instrumental in the commission’s creation in 1997. After many years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says that he is “controversial and proud of it”. Indeed, the jury’s choice raises contentious questions about how best to manage water resources for the shared benefit of all.

 

Since the turn of the century, John Briscoe has been the world’s pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In the 20th century, Europe developed approximately 80 percent of its hydropower potential, while Africa has still only exploited 8 percent of its own. It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds for more dam building in Africa now.

 

Africa's Future

Africa has tried to follow Europe’s path to industrial development before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples of this approach. As a result, Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made the continent highly vulnerable to climate change. Luckily other solutions are available today. Wind, solar and geothermal energy have become competitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, these energy sources don’t depend on centralised electric grids, but can serve the needs of the rural populations wherever they live.

 

This is why the International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy aid be devoted to decentralised renewable energy sources if the goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met. A diverse, decentralised portfolio of renewable energy projects will also make African countries more resilient to climate change than putting all eggs into the basket of a few mega-dams.

 

Just because Europe developed with large dams in the 20th century doesn’t mean Africa has to do the same today. In the telecom sector, Africa has successfully leapfrogged Europe’s landline model and relied on cell phone companies to provide access to the majority of the population. Like cell phone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropower projects can be built quickly, close to where people need them, and without major environmental impacts.

 

Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, but Africa’s future is lit by the sun. Although John Briscoe has reinvigorated an important debate about large dams, the Stockholm Water Prize should celebrate the solutions of the future rather than the past.



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