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Nile Basin energy future

Mar 5, 2007 Derek Sands UPI

CAIRO, Egypt (UPI) -- Plans to coordinate the energy resources of the Nile River Basin countries are attracting international support, but some critics argue the plan`s reliance on large dams and electricity grids are inefficient and will distract from more effective energy alternatives.

Officials of the Nile Basin Initiative met in Rwanda to celebrate Nile Day, and the group`s eighth anniversary, on Feb. 22, but some observers say the initiative should shift its focus from large hydroelectric projects to more diverse and small-scale energy development.

More than 150 million people live in the Nile basin, and over 300 million in the nine countries -- Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- that feed the Nile. A 2005 report for the NBI, commissioned by the Canadian government and the World Bank, predicted that energy demand in just six of the countries would increase from 1,900 MW to 4,600 MW or more, depending on economic growth, between 2005 and 2020.

Begun in 1999 with the help of the U.N. Development Program, the Canadian Development Agency and the World Bank, the initiative aims to reduce conflict over Nile resources and provide a framework for cooperation on a spectrum of issues, from energy to water supplies and economic development. Conflicting demands over the water that feeds the Nile has long stood in the way of coordination between the countries.

Indeed, the Nile basin still suffers from water-use agreements adopted under British colonization, which gave Egypt the bulk of water rights. The NBI also aims to put a framework in place to more fairly share rights to the water of the Nile.

On the energy front, the NBI, still in its infancy, has ambitious plans to interconnect the electricity grids of the basin countries and create a market for the countries to trade energy, and to increase the amount of energy available in those countries, chiefly through hydroelectric power. This focus on large-scale projects has attracted criticism.

'In the run-up to building a large dam, alternative energy sources are rarely given a fair shake,' according to Lori Pottinger, who has written extensively on the Nile Basin Initiative, and is the Africa campaigns director for the International Rivers Project, a group that promotes alternatives to large hydroelectric dam projects.

The 250 MW Bujangli Dam, planned for Uganda, is just one example of this trend, she said.

'Not even counting their geothermal reserves, there is close to 400 MW of renewables and efficiency measures available now, with little pain. Given that Uganda`s ongoing energy crisis is related to lower flows of the Nile out of Lake Victoria, it would be a wise plan for that government to diversify its supply. But instead, it`s moving forward with another large dam, at huge cost,' Pottinger said.

But George Ayittey, an economist at American University in Washington and an expert on African development, sees the current direction of NBI projects as crucial.

'The NBI is a positive step in the development of the region and should have been undertaken a long time ago,' Ayittey said.

'The benefits far outweigh any negative population and ecological consequences. Certainly, large areas will be flooded and ecological habitats will be lost forever. But people will have to be moved. More importantly, the current methods of meeting energy needs from fossil fuels and wood burning are far more environmentally damaging than hydroelectricity, which is clean,' Ayittey said.

He also sees electrical interconnection as an important aim

. 'The interconnectivity of the basin countries` electricity grid would not only be helpful, but also critical. It would enable hydroelectric potential to be harnessed more efficiently, rather than on an ad hoc basis by each basin country finding the need to build its own dam. Harnessing the hydro-electricity in the Nile basin could spur much-needed economic development,' he said.

While more dams and increased interconnectivity are still in the planning stages, Pottinger is not convinced the current plans make financial sense.

'The other big question is on the economic viability of such an approach. First, the distances in this area are huge, and the energy-buying population small. Then, there`s the problem of too many players in the market without enough demand. I understand that many countries are joining regional power pools in the hope to sell energy to each other, but we`ve yet to see an overarching plan to show the details of how it can work,' she said.

Committing to large-scale energy sharing could also distract from small and more effective solutions, Pottinger said.

'Locking into a massive expansion of high-voltage transmission lines will also take the wind of the sails for any effort to exploring a more decentralized approach to energy development, which would be much better suited to meeting the populace`s needs,' she said.

'Mini-grids based on localized supply could help jumpstart local economies -- it would be taking a trickle-up approach to development, rather than the trickle-down approach. Micropower, as it is also known, is not just for the rural poor -- it`s an increasingly important approach for security reasons, speed of implementation, and its flexibility, among other reason,' Pottinger said.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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