African Hydropower News

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Sub-­Saharan Africa is the region with the greatest percentage of the population without electricity globally. As death rates fall and birth rates do not, the population is expected to double in the first half of this century. The construction of hydroelectric dams provides the opportunity to bring more power to the region and prepare for rapidly growing populations and offers benefits to health, agriculture, and more. Many of these power stations are operating now, with some others proposed or under construction like the third and fourth dams in the Grand Inga system on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. The fourth at Inga Falls, the Grand Inga Dam, will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.

In the DRC, the first two dams at Inga Falls have been operational for decades. The third is finally expected to begin construction in late 2016 or early 2017. The country is currently in talks for partnership with one of three groups of developers which have experience with these hydropower mega­dam. One is a partnership between two Chinese power companies owned by the state, including the Three Gorges Corporation responsible for the dam of the same name which is currently the largest in the world. Another option is a partnership between companies, one from South Korea and Canada, and the last is between two Spanish companies. The power will be offered to South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Botswana, and probably other countries due to its incredible scale.

Map showing the percentage of population with access to electricity. Source: World Bank, 2011-2015.
Map showing the percentage of population with access to electricity. Source: World Bank, 2011-2015.

An announcement was made on December 29th, 2015 that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt had reached an agreement regarding the construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Many more people in Ethiopia will gain access to electricity, and Sudan will be able to purchase cheap power. Sudan will also be protected against annual flooding and able to expand their agriculture. Egypt worries about environmental impacts of the project, and does not stand to gain very much from the dam. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa predicted on December 31st that Ethiopia will have the largest economy in Africa in 2050. Although the DRC has a great wealth of natural resources, its instability and poor infrastructure hold it back. Nigeria, now the largest economy in Africa, depends too heavily on oil to remain at the top.

Inga hydroelectric dam connected to the Inga Falls in the western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: Alaindg, MediaWiki Commons, 2004.
Inga 1 hydroelectric dam connected to the Inga Falls in the western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: I, Alaindg, CC BY 2.5,, MediaWiki Commons, 2004.

The rise of hydropower in Africa has been found to help people with HIV. In Zimbabwe, it enables vegetable gardens which provide the nutrients and food security necessary for living with HIV. It also brings electricity ­ and possibly more clinics ­ to remote areas. However, climate change is expected to result in a greater frequency and severity of droughts in sub­Saharan Africa, which may threaten the reliability of hydropower.  In October 2015, drought caused Tanzania to temporarily shut down hydropower plants and blackouts left many without power. Despite these challenges, the projects bring tremendous amounts of power to the region and foster the development necessary for the rapid growth of population that is expected.

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