Challenge of balancing competing water, energy needs in SADC

by Kizito Sikuka
The warning is clear and getting louder – management of water development in southern Africa cannot continue to undermine energy issues or vice versa because action in one area impacts on the other.

Water extraction and distribution, for example, require the availability of adequate energy supplies, while energy production requires water.

This water-energy nexus, therefore, demands that countries and regions come up with innovative ways of finding a balance between these competing needs to promote socio-economic development, while at the same time ensuring that development of one of the needs does not affect the other.

Balancing and integrating these linkages is even more important now that most countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are experiencing economic growth, population growth and improving living standards – factors that have put more pressure on water and energy resources.

Additional challenges such as climate change are also threatening these resources.

The SADC chairperson, President Seretse Khama Ian Khama of Botswana is convening a special regional meeting on energy and water aimed at facilitating the exchange of ideas and forging practical and sustainable solutions towards addressing the energy and waters crisis in the region with a view to mapping out a strategic direction.

The meeting, set for 20 June in Gaborone, Botswana, will be held under the theme “Accelerating energy delivery and access to water resources in the SADC region – A collective approach.”

One key issue that the meeting will seek to address is how SADC should address the impacts of the current drought on the energy and water sectors.

For example, low rainfall received in the 2015/16 season saw large parts of the region record very low reservoir water levels affecting energy generation.

Declining water levels in Lake Kariba between Zambia and Zimbabwe – one of the main sources of electricity in the SADC region – is an issue of major concern as it resulted in low hydropower generation activities.

The Zambezi River Authority reported that water levels in Kariba had reduced to only 12 percent of capacity on 1 February compared to the 53 percent recorded on the same date the previous year.

In October 2015, the United Republic of Tanzania was forced to switch off all its hydropower plants due to low water levels in the country’s dams. As a result of the low water levels, hydro-electricity generation had fallen to 20 percent of capacity, making it difficult for the dams to operate.

Tanzania has since converted some of its hydroelectricity plants to natural gas.

During the 1997 drought spell, the Mtera Dam in Tanzania recorded its lowest-ever level, resulting in a 17 percent drop in hydropower generation, while the 1999 drought saw Mauritius experience a 70 percent drop in generation capacity.

“Going forward, water and energy systems will have to be planned together with particular emphasis focused on the integration of renewable energy sources for wastewater treatment and processing,” reads part of the concept paper for the SADC Energy and Water Ministers Workshop.

“The SADC region should now take a more integrated approach to address the challenges and opportunities that the water-energy nexus presents… Energy and water are critical ingredients to the SADC region’s economic development and are crucial for the realisation of the regional goals of regional integration and poverty reduction.”

Access to reliable electricity and water supplies is the key to national economic activities and development including the industrialization agenda.

If the current status of energy and water supply services in the region does not improve, the SADC Industrialization Strategy and Roadmap may remain elusive.

“Power supply shortages have contributed to the reduction of the Gross Domestic Product of SADC Member States from a peak of about 7 percent in 2007, when electricity supply equalled demand and a hydrological drought year, to a low of about zero percent in 2009 before rising to about four percent in 2012 after some power supply interventions were introduced,” the concept paper said.

It is believed that a better understanding of water-energy nexus will unlock opportunities for collaboration among member states, thereby boosting regional cooperation and development.

The water-energy meeting is one of the three regional meetings aimed at finding innovative ways of managing the competing environmental, social and economic dimensions of development in southern Africa.

A similar meeting on food security and poverty eradication was convened in May, while another will on illegal trade in wildlife is scheduled for July.

At the SADC water-energy meeting, a ministerial declaration and action plan is expected to be adopted containing various activities aimed at mitigating the impacts of drought on water and energy development.

The action plan will be tabled for consideration at the forthcoming SADC Council of Ministers and Summit of SADC Heads of State and Government in Swaziland in August for adoption.