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EMPOWERING RAIN

The poster boy for energy security in Africa for the first decade and a half of the 21st century, Zambia was hit hard by a severe drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern in 2015/2016. However, strong off-season rains in 2017 bode well for the recovery of the country's agricultural and energy sectors.

Victoria falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe










A general view of the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe

With one of the biggest dams and one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, both named Kariba, Zambia has been a success story of renewable energy security for a long time. The country recieves 95% of its power from hydroelectric dams. Up until 2015, Zambia was actually a net exporter of power to its partners in the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP), and was able to supply electricity at very low prices from its network of dams.

Unfortunately, as many nations across the world have painfully realized, single-source dependency for power generation is a risky business. When the El Niño weather pattern hit Zambia at the end of 2015 and the rain stopped, the economic backbone of the landlocked nation was broken.

At the peak of the crisis, Zambia had a power deficit of over 550 MW. The issue became paramount for its citizens, who started to follow the water levels at Kariba dam as a barometer for the country's future.

The dam is the source of 40% of the country's power on average, and was running almost completely dry in late 2016. Power cuts, scheduled and unscheduled, became a daily affair, posing great difficulties to businesses and households alike.

In 2016 the government was forced to spend USD480 million on power imports and scrambled to push forward with finding financing for delayed power generation projects to curb the crisis, pushing the country further into debt.

This naturally took its toll on economic growth. While Zambia sustained average growth of above 7% over the decade running up to 2015, GDP growth was registered at no more than 2.9% in 2016. 2017 is expected to see some recovery, pushing growth up to 4%, thanks to recent meteorological developments.

The unexpected strong rains of early 2017 came as a blessing to the country's depleted water reserves. Alas, nature can be ironic at times. After over a year of severe drought plunging Zambia into the biggest power crisis in decades, these off-season heavy rains fell so hard that they took out the power infrastructure of five provinces in mid-December, 2016. The North Western, Northern, Luapula, Muchinga, Copperbelt, and Central provinces all went dark. The Copperbelt area, the country's mining center and a major economic pillar, was rapidly reinstated, but the rest weren't so lucky.

Projects are in place to prevent similar events in the future. Zambia and Zimbabwe plan to set up a common dam on the Batoka gorge. According to the ministry of energy, a new network of power plants will see 1200MW of power coming online in the next few years. The Chinese-funded Kafue Gorge Lower Hydro project, which should be commissioned by 2019, will produce 750MW of power and balance power generation in the country in the short term. Projects like the Scaling Solar project, is under bid to produce 600MW of power in the near future. For the mid-term, the government plans to invest in a nuclear reactor with the help of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom.

All this bodes well for Zambia to return to power security, but other issue looms in the horizon, one that will be hard to solve with money. The El Niño weather pattern has become more devastating in recent years. Changes in average temperature and in season predictability have made themselves more apparent. Climate change is hitting Equatorial Africa harder than perhaps any other region on the planet, and Zambians can feel it; it doesn't only affect power production, agriculture has been hard hit, and other industries struggle to survive without a reliable source of energy.

According to the New York Times, “between 1960 and 2003, Zambia's average annual temperature rose by 1.3 degrees Celsius, and rainfall has decreased by 2.3 percent each decade. The rainy season has become shorter, marked by more frequent droughts. When rains fall, they do so with greater intensity and tend to cause floods."

Africa is expected to be the most rapidly affected region by rising temperatures, and yet, it might be the least prepared to react to it. The Paris Agreement signed in April 2016 promised USD100 billion from wealthy nations to help Africa deal with the challenge of climate change starting from 2020, but how the money will be applied and distributed is still not clear.

While uncertainty reigns supreme in the field of climate change mitigation, the rains are coming back to Zambia.

The temperature, however, is still rising.


 

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