Hats off to International Rivers for its new report on dam-building in Africa. A critic of dam projects around the globe, IR has long exposed mistakes and injustices in the fraught process of creating hydro-power projects. The new Africa report is an invaluable resource for critics and fans of dams in Africa. New hydro-power sources must be part of Africa’s expanding energy mix. However, because African societies are highly divided, and because African elites remain poorly aligned with broader national and regional interests, many — perhaps most — dam projects in Africa continue to be poorly conceived, designed and implemented. Governments continue to prefer very large dams over small, lower-cost, more environmentally friendly mini- and micro-hydro projects. Yet small electricity projects have enormous potential for good. The obsession with giantism remains a scourge in African hydro-power policies. While very small hydro projects cannot meet the needs of Africa’s burgeoning cities, and skyrocketing populations, the governments in the region must strike a better balance between old and new ways of generating and distributing electricity. By ignoring the benefits of small hydro, and alternative sources generally, African governments also erode their credibility as independent arbiters of energy potential. Small hydro also has the benefit of putting people first. Communities can organize and control their own electricity resources; local control is especially important for rural communities that are “off grid.” These communities may never be served by national grids that, at least in Africa, are permanently handicapped, essentially unable to expand for a myriad of reasons. Even cities in Africa could benefit from off-grid approaches, drawing on new tools generating tools and capacities in order to supply electricity to neighborhoods not currently served by the national grid. International Rivers is a crucial voice for greater balance and sanity in the energy mix in Africa; the organization’s new report is an essential reference work.
May 25 2010
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