6 March 2006

South Africa: Hydropower 'Can Benefit the Poor'

Cape Town — Hydropower has the potential to contribute to reducing Africa's energy poverty, says a report published today.

The report, Meeting Africa's Energy Needs -- the costs and benefits of hydropower, details two case studies from Zambia and Kenya that show how hydropower can deliver benefits with minimal effect.

The report, by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Oxfam and WaterAid, coincides with the opening in Johannesburg of an African ministerial conference on hydropower. It calls for a greater emphasis on providing benefits for the poor and reducing damage to ecosystems in future energy policies.

Dr Ute Collier, dams and hydropower manager for WWF and report author, said the importance of sustainable development needed to be made clear to ministers at the conference.

More than 500-million people have no access to regular energy supply in Africa. This means no refrigeration for medicines or food, as well as no effective lighting. Improving this situation is vital if the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving world poverty by 2015 is to be achieved.

The report also warns that Africa has a legacy of environmental and social problems linked to existing hydropower plants. Large hydropower plants rarely serve the needs of the very poorest people, says the report, which urges a cautious approach.

The report says decision makers should follow the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams as a guide to good practice. The recommendations aim to ensure that dams are economically and environmentally sustainable by ensuring that construction plans are given public approval, comprehensive assessments of other options are made and that the economic benefits of any dam are shared with local communities.

Collier said while large hydropower plants such as the Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams on the Zambezi River had brought economic benefits, they had also damaged freshwater ecosystems, which in turn affected fisheries.

In the case of the Zambezi, the economic losses of reduced prawn fisheries had been estimated at between $10m and $20m a year, without compensation for the affected fishermen.

"In some cases, the devastating impacts have still not been adequately addressed decades later," she said.

John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, said large hydropower plants were rarely the best option to bring electricity to the poor. Solar and small hydropower were often better alternatives, he said.

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