Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Water is Scarce, Develop Hydroelectric Power Installations

It hardly comes as a surprise, but electricity prices in Kenya are increasing because of unreliable rainfall patterns. Unwisely, Kenya depends to a large extent on hydroelectric power. So when there is a prolonged drought power is in short supply. Expensive, inefficient and highly polluting emergency power is generated using fossil fuels to make up some of the shortfall.

Hydroelectric dams have been built in developing countries for many decades. This may have seemed like a good idea a long time ago, although it is more likely to have appealed to the Western engineering companies and others who reaped substantial profits from the building of these installations. But the multiple disadvantages of hydroelectric power are now widely recognized, disadvantages including inefficiency, expense and irreversible environmental damage.

For the moment, I'll leave aside the (albeit important) question of who is profiting from the production of emergency power over such a long period of time, which makes it seem less of an emergency and more like plain stupidity. But the cost increases for electricity, said to be about 60% over the past six months, are being passed on to hard pressed consumers. This is particularly galling in a country where only a minority of households have an electricity supply.

Already, well over half of Kenya's power is, ostensibly, generated by hydroelectric installations. This suggests a surprising overdependence in a country that has several viable alternatives. But there are now plans to build a new dam in Coastal Province (where most of the country's hydroelectric power is produced) to provide domestic water supplies, irrigation and electricity. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent on something that is unlikely to work very well and will have serious adverse impacts. The money is coming from the Chinese government and, while water infrastructure is badly needed, another huge dam hardly seems like the best approach given the history of such projects in developing countries.

Kenya could produce enough electricity for all its citizens using sustainable and relatively cheap sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal. There are good reasons for keeping water supply and irrigation separate from electricity generation because hydroelectric power is not just inadvisable, it's also quite unnecessary in Kenya. Touting the project as being a solution to water shortages doesn't explain why such a large amount of money is being spent on it. We are not told what the Chinese government is getting in return. Oil and other natural resources, probably.


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