Powering Southern Africa - the future of hydro in the Zambezi River Basin


Powering Southern Africa - the future of hydro in the Zambezi River Basin

By Randall Spalding-Fecher, Project Research Director, Pöyry Management Consulting

The Southern African energy sector faces major development challenges. Although energy is a critical driver of economic and social development, energy consumption per capita has generally not kept up with population increases. Electrification levels in many countries remain very low, and even with dramatic increases in electrification the absolute numbers without access are still predicted to climb. Power shortages frequently impact national and regional economies. While investment in power supply is catching up, the gap between supply and demand will persist for at least several more years.

To increase electricity supply, the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), which includes the national utilities of Southern Africa and major independent power producers, has developed a major expansion plan that includes more than 6,000 MW of new hydropower by 2015. Most of the northern Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries already rely primarily on hydropower, and this will increase in the future. Yet, many of these countries are also periodically under water stress during drought, while the water demand continues to grow, largely due to major irrigation investments.

The question then is, ‘will there be enough water for these power plants to be viable, given how both the climate is changing and the growth in other demands for water?’ Climate change affects both water supply and water demand. On the supply side, not only the change in mean rainfall, but also the seasonality of that rainfall, affects water availability. Increasing temperatures also increases evapotranspiration from the land-surface as well as evaporation from reservoirs. On the demand side, changes in rainfall patterns and increased temperatures can increase water demand from irrigation, as well as industry and urban areas to a lesser extent. Southern Africa has experienced numerous examples already of the negative economic impacts of inadequate rainfall for both hydropower and irrigation. Countries such as Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe have already been crippled in recent years when severe droughts cut hydropower production dramatically.

The impact of climate change and upstream irrigation development on hydropower in the Zambezi River Basin is the subject of a new project launched by CDKN in February. A consortium of institutions - including University of Cape Town, Pöyry Management Consulting, OneWorld Sustainable Investments, Centre for Energy Environment Engineering Zambia, University of Zambia and University of Eduardo Mondlane – will tackle both the analysis of how climate, development, water and power intersect in the region, and engage with key stakeholders in the region around these critical issues.

The project will include integrated water and power scenarios for the Zambezi River Basin, linking two complimentary modelling approaches for the water and energy sectors. The water and energy models will also build on a set of consistent development and climate scenarios for the region developed as part of the project. In addition, the study will show how changes in water availability for hydropower would affect the SAPP overall electricity system and the financial viability of the hydropower investments. The project includes not only the analysis of potential impacts but also engagement with stakeholders– to validate the information used as well as the conclusions of the analysis. Capacity building for research staff, as well as SAPP Coordination Centre staff, will be an integral part of the project.

The engagement between the consortium and SAPP, as well as other regional stakeholders, will build a platform of knowledge and analysis that can serve the region. Anchoring the analysis in a group of southern African universities provides a foundation for ongoing academic work, while the collaboration with utilities places vital information in the hands of the decision makers on future power investments. These decision makers face increasing pressure from financiers to take into consideration a wider range of risks in their business planning, including long term climatic changes and competition with other sectors for water supply. This platform can provide a public domain resource base– of both people and knowledge, to support these decision makers, both individually and collectively through SAPP.

Photo courtesy of The Zambezi Society.

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