The water-energy nexus is one of the most important and cross-cutting issues facing sub-Saharan Africa today.
Energy security has been defined by the UN as "access to clean, reliable and affordable energy services for cooking and heating, lighting, communications and productive uses".
Water is needed for energy generation and transmission, particularly for hydroelectric, nuclear, and thermal energy sources. Energy is needed to produce, transport, treat and distribute water. The more energy we need, the more water we use, and vice versa. As populations grow in number and affluence, the demand for both water and energy is increasing faster than ever.
The Nile basin, covering an area of 3.18 million square kilometres and shared by 11 countries with a population of over 400 million people, is no exception. Most countries in the Nile basin are undergoing rapid economic growth, which in turn has increased demand for water, energy, and food.
Yet, with the exception of Egypt, clean energy supply in the Nile basin countries remains inadequate, unreliable and expensive. Electricity consumption in the region is among the lowest in the world, with the bulk of the population in rural areas remaining dependent on biomass energy sources with associated negative impacts on the environment.
With its characteristic landscape, the Nile basin offers huge potential for hydroelectric power generation exceeding 20 gigawatts, which largely remains untapped. Existing facilities represent about 26% of potential capacity.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) led comprehensive study on Basin-Wide Power Development Options and Trade Opportunities in the Nile Basin (December 2011) indicated that the total energy demand in the Nile basin countries is expected to rise from 183,711 gigawatt-hour in 2010 to 1,170,328 gigawatt-hour by the year 2035, representing an increase of 300%.
In addition, the Nile basin remains the only region on the African continent without a functional regional power grid, with very insignificant volumes of power traded among the countries.
This slow pace of hydropower development constrains economic growth in the riparian countries, especially those that are highly dependent on it such as Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Each Nile riparian country faces unique challenges, but all have ambitious national development plans to fuel economic growth and promote poverty alleviation efforts; undoubtedly all the plans depend on energy availability.
Hydro-power is their preferred source of energy for various reasons, key among them the low production cost.
However, if each Nile riparian state was to pursue and implement its national hydropower infrastructure development plans on the River Nile without consideration of the larger river basin context, there is a risk that some of the national hydropower investments could be sub-optimal (seen regionally) and may foreclose future development opportunities.
Is there a way out? Yes, and the answer lies in trans-boundary water cooperation. Trans-boundary or basin-wide water cooperation in hydropower development and management would enable Nile riparian countries to unlock and optimise the hydropower potential and allow for a more efficient location and operation of hydropower infrastructure.
This would present opportunities for significant reduction in project financing risks and enhance regional cooperation and trust. It would further unlock the full productive potential of the Nile basin for more prosperous national and regional sustainable growth.
Through cooperation, riparian countries would exchange technical know-how and share related costs for very large hydropower infrastructure investments which are required to meet the region's power demand.
Countries would then embark on constructing transmission lines and interconnectors that would greatly enhance cross-border power trade and markets amongst riparian countries as well as promote regional integration.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is leading efforts to transform the region's power sector in various ways: it provides a forum for joint planning and cooperative development of hydropower generation and transmission options; promotes power pooling and power trade among the Nile basin countries, and promotes establishment of regional power markets through strengthening trans-boundary planning, coordinating the construction of the regional transmission grid and encouraging further integration of the regulatory and supervisory framework.
The Ethiopia-Sudan transmission interconnection, facilitating cross-border power trade between the two countries and optimizing the utilization of existing and planned generation capacity was commissioned in 2013.
Implementation of a further 1500km of interconnected grid for Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda is on-going. Preparation of other interconnectors between Kenya and Tanzania; Iringa and Mbeya; Uganda (Nkenda) and DR Congo (Beni); and Tanzania and Zambia, is at an advanced stage.
Once completed, these will interconnect the East African Power Pool to the Southern Power Pool, thereby improving the power backbone of the Nile riparian countries, facilitating increased cross-border power markets and trade as well as increasing availability of affordable and reliable electric energy.
As NBI member states' governments and citizens celebrate this year's annual Nile day (to commemorate the establishment of NBI on February 22, 1999) whose theme is, Water and Energy: National Challenges, Trans-boundary Solutions, the objective is to raise awareness about the inter-linkages between water and energy and the importance of Nile cooperation in hydropower generation.
Ugandans are welcome to participate in the regional celebrations scheduled to take place on February 21, 2014 in Kampala.
The writer is the regional development Communication Specialist, Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat.