Women and children sell firewood in the city of Mutare

Zimbabwe: Drought Cripples Hydropower

By Andrew Mambondiyani

Priscila Mazanga stares expressionlessly at a small crackling fire in her small makeshift kitchen, she coughs a bit. She rubbed her hands on her apron and with a weary smile she said: “I use firewood for cooking during power outages”. And added dejectedly: “Cooking is now a nightmare”.

Mazanga, like many people in Zimbabwe- both in rural and urban areas- now depends on firewood for cooking during electricity outages. At the height of electricity shortages in December last year some neighborhoods in the country could go for upto 20 hours a day without electricity.

But Mazanga, a mother of three, seemed oblivious of the dangers of household air pollution which according to experts is one of the leading causes of death in developing countries. Mazanga ekes a living out of selling various small wares on the streets of Zimbabwe’s eastern border city of Mutare.

“Life is really tough. I finish my work late in the night and when there is no electricity I have to make a fire and cook for my children,” she said. “At times I use discarded dirty plastics to make fire for cooking”.

However, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an international private-public sector alliance working towards the adoption of clean and efficient cook stoves and fuels, up to 4.3 million deaths a year the world over are caused by household air pollution.

The alliance said household air pollution was the number environmental risk factor for the burden of diseases in the developing countries, responsible for a higher burden than unclean drinking water and poor sanitation.

And fears abound in Zimbabwe that the growing number of people resorting to firewood for cooking in urban and rural areas would result in a spike in deaths related to household air pollution.

Zimbabwe depends mostly on hydroelectric power from Kariba Dam, and the 2014/2015 drought coupled with the current El Nino induced drought has resulted in water levels in the dam dropping to critical levels.

Kariba Hydro Power Station was by end of January this year generating less than 400 megawatts (MW) instead of the installed capacity of 750MW, due to low water levels in the dam.

And according to the Zambezi River Authority, which superintends over the Kariba Dam, water levels had declined to 12 percent by early this year.

Chipendeke Micro Hydrop Power Station power house

Chipendeke Micro Hydrop Power Station power house

The country also generates electricity at Hwange Thermal Power Station and three small other thermal stations in Harare, Munyati and Bulawayo. And there are also independent micro hydro power stations dotted around the country’s Eastern Highlands.

Zimbabwe needs 2200 megawatts a day but is currently generating around 1300 megawatts a day. By January this year, Zimbabwe was importing 300 megawatts from South Africa which resulted in an improvement in electricity supply.

However, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority was also planning to increase electricity tariffs from by 49 percent from 9,86 cents to 14,69 cents per kilowatt hour. The power utility said the hike was cost reflective and necessary to augment emergency power imports.

And as the droughts bite deeper, independent mini hydro power plants in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands have also been hard hit by water shortages.

One such micro hydro power station is Chipendeke located about 70 kilometres south of the eastern city of Mutare near the border with Mozambique.

A visit by this journalist to Chipendeke Micro Hydro Power Station, up the Himalaya Mountains in Eastern Highlands, late January this year revealed that power generation had been temporarily suspended due to water shortages.

Water levels in Chitora River which supplies water to the mini hydro power plant had now gone so low forcing the temporary suspension of electricity generation.

A small building which houses the plant’s power turbines was under lock and key and looked deserted; the generator was switched off.

Phillip Muwungani, a villager at Chipindeke Resettlement Scheme, said hydro power station had been affected by the low levels of water in the river.

“We use the same water for irrigation and electricity power generation. Water levels are very low and the electricity generation was temporarily stopped (on 27 January 2016). The situation is very bad,” Muwungani said.

“Our priority at the moment is water for the irrigation scheme. We are using the little water available to irrigate our crops,” he said.

Another villager in the same area, Joseph Nakai, said the power outage had affected a local school, clinic and business centre.

“We hope things will improve if we receive some rains. The clinic needs electricity to preserve medicines,” he said.

Elijah Ngwarati, who resides in the same area said the future of micro hydropower does not look bright.

“The future is gloomy. We hope the rains will come soon,” Ngwarati said.

Chipendeke Micro hydropower project and a neighboring Himalaya Hydropower project are part of the sustainable energy initiative spearheaded by Hivos, Zimbabwe Regional Environment Organization, Practical Action and the Zimbabwe Energy Council.

The critical shortage of electricity in the country has a serious effect on virtually all sectors of the economy in the country.

And Amy Wickham, a climate change officer at UNICEF Zimbabwe said sustainable energy played a key role in children’s development and wellbeing.

She said energy demand in Zimbabwe was growing gradually, and access currently remains low with a national average of 40 percent and of only 19 percent in rural areas

She added: “Some barriers that impede Zimbabwean communities having access to sustainable energy solutions include finance, technology, awareness, user participation and capacity”.

Wickham said energy for cooking remains dominated by traditional sources and transition towards sustainable energy for cooking for the communities would involve a multi-pronged strategy.

And UNICEF is pushing for all institutions in the country to come up with an energy policy, form a team, give it the tools to use and implement an energy management programme.

“Energy for lighting is poor in households, schools and health institutions. Poor quality light affects studying period for children especially during the evening contributing to poor academic performance. It has been reported that some children have been forced to burn old rubber slippers to get lighting,” she said.

However, the Zimbabwe power regulatory authority, Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) chief executive officer, Engineer Gloria Magombo revealed that the country needs at least US$9 billion to increase the national power generation to 5 000 megawatts by 2030.

She said it was the government’s goal to produce 300 megawatts from renewable energy sources by 2018 as well as ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern services.

“We need to enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced, cleaner fossil-fuel technology and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology,” she said.

According to a schedule released by the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority, there are various electricity projects which are at various stages of construction across country.

These projects which will be completed by 2018 include, Hwange Thermal Power Station extension, small thermal repowering projects, Kariba South Hydro Power Station extension, Gairezi Hydro Power Plant, solar power plants and peaking or emergency power plants.

But as the country explore options for clean and renewable energy, independent economist and energy expert, Eddie Cross said Zimbabwe was not suited for wind power generation as there were few sites with sufficient wind.

However, Cross who he is also a legislator for Bulawayo South, said the country was investing quite heavily in solar energy and within two years Zimbabwe would get about 20 percent of its electricity from solar.

He was however quick to add that: “The problem is that storage is very costly and with a limited life span at present and therefore we will still have to rely on coal for our base load and perhaps gas”.

Cross said: “But for our peak demand periods hydro remains our best and least cost option – Kariba Hydro Station produces power at 1,5 cents a kilowatt hour (KwH)at the wall, coal 8 to 12 cents, solar 20 to 30 cents. Providing we use hydro as a peak supplier and not as base load, we should be OK at 85 percent of the water in the Zambezi River (Kariba Dam)”.

An energy expert from Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) in Zimbabwe, Sunny Chikwanha said the current renewable energy appears unattractive and expensive hence academia had a role to come up with alternative solutions which would bring about creative innovations in the green economy development.

“We need to think without the box in coming up with new renewable energy alternatives with less environmental impact. The rising population and pressure on natural resources has led to an imbalance in natural resources. It is the role of the academia to spearhead research and innovation to combat these issues,” Chikwanha said.

Chikwanha said the development of a sustainable and clean energy source was therefore crucial and the academia plays a role in developing new efficient systems and improving already existing systems to be more efficient and increase sustainability.

However, a recent report by an environmental watchdog, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), revealed that Zimbabwe does not have a specific policy and law on renewable energy.

Low water levels in Chitora River affects electricity generation

Low water levels in Chitora River affects electricity generation

The report said: “The direct and indirect reference to renewable energy is not found in a standalone policy or law but in laws and policies that are dealing with general energy issues and not specifically with renewable energy. The lack of a standalone and coherent policy on green energy production has resulted in the scattering of regulatory and policy frameworks”.

The current legal and policy framework on renewable energy lacks adequate economic instruments to promote or incentivize its use by industry and the general populace. There is also inadequate mainstreaming the green economy concept in Zimbabwe’s legal and policy the starting point is for it to develop a standalone policy on clean renewable energy.

Though, ZELA acknowledged that efforts were already underway however it said the statement of intent should clearly outline the principles, the objectives and the strategies for promoting the production of renewable energy.

“This policy should be followed by the development of a clean renewable energy law that supports the implementation of the renewable energy policy for the various sources of clean renewable energy like wind, biofuels, bio gas, solar and ethanol,” reads part the report.

The electricity challenges facing Zimbabwe are not isolated to the country alone as various countries in the region are facing similar problems as a result of climate change induced droughts in the region.

And efforts by Zimbabwe and many other countries in the region have greatly been affected, and many companies have closed down as a result of the crisis.

In a 2010 report, Ugandan energy expert, Dr Barnabas Nawangwe warned that climate change had made an already bad situation for competitiveness of Africa’s businesses even worse.

“Most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa depend on hydro power for their electricity needs. The fall in levels of lakes and drying up of rivers has meant that the generation capacity has fallen drastically. Many countries have been forced to purchase and operate thermal generators, which has led to an escalation of electricity tariffs,” Nawangwe said.

According to a report on IOL Business droughts in Africa have affected electricity generation in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

And the 2015 drought left the three countries generating far below their capacity because of low water levels in the catchment areas feeding the power plants.

According to this report, Tanzania was forced to shut down all its hydroelectric generation in October last year because of the risk of turbines being damaged by air entering the system. The country has since launched a US$1.33 billion project to pipe natural gas to the city of Dar es Salaam to alleviate power shortages in the city.

Zambia generates 90 percent of its electricity from its three hydroelectric power plants in Kariba, the Kafue Gorge and Victoria Falls Zimbabwe and Tanzania both receive about 60 percent of their electricity supply from hydroelectric sources.

By late January this year, Zambia’s power utility ZESCO Limited had cut electricity generation to a quarter of capacity at its Kariba hydropower plan due to water levels.

Water levels in Kariba had dropped to 12 percent of capacity and the power crisis has affected the mining industry in the country.

And ZESCO spokesman, Henry Kapata was quoted in the media as saying: “We have a power deficit of 630 MW as of January 2016 although we expect this to reduce to below 160 by August 2016 as mitigation measures are put in place,”

These mitigation measures, according to Kapata include bringing forward new power projects such as a 300 MW coal-fired plant due to start output in June and additional power imports.

In a recent study –Worldwide Electricity Production Vulnerable to Climate and Water Resource Change it emerged that climate change impacts on rivers and streams may substantially reduce electricity production capacity around the world.

And the study calls for a greater focus on adaptation efforts in order to maintain future energy security. “Hydropower plants and thermoelectric power plants—which are nuclear, fossil-, and biomass-fueled plants converting heat to electricity—both rely on freshwater from rivers and streams,” said the lead researcher Michelle Van Vliet, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who led the study.

“These power-generating technologies strongly depend on water availability, and water temperature for cooling plays in addition a critical role for thermoelectric power generation.”

The study revealed that climate change impacts and associated changes in water resources could lead to reductions in electricity production capacity for more than 60 percent of the power plants worldwide from 2040-2069.

According to the study hydropower and thermoelectric power currently contribute to 98 percent of electricity production worldwide.

The study expands the research to a global level, using data from 24,515 hydropower and 1,427 thermoelectric power plants worldwide.

“This is the first study of its kind to examine the linkages between climate change, water resources, and electricity production on a global scale. We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate,” saidIIASA Energy Program Director and study co-author, Keywan Riahi.

“In particular the United States, southern South America, southern Africa, central and southern Europe, Southeast Asia and southern Australia are vulnerable regions, because declines in mean annual streamflow are projected combined with strong increases in water temperature under changing climate. This reduces the potential for both hydropower and thermoelectric power generation in these regions,” said Van Vliet.

The study also explored the potential impact of adaptation measures such as technological developments that increase power plant efficiency, switching from coal to more efficient gas-fired plants, or switching from freshwater cooling to air cooling or to seawater cooling systems for power plants on the coasts.

“We show that technological developments with increases in power plant efficiencies and changes in cooling system types would reduce the vulnerability to water constraints in most regions. Improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods is of course also important,” Van Vliet said.

However, Van Vliet said: “In order to sustain water and energy security in the next decades, the electricity focus will need to increase on climate change adaptation in addition to mitigation.”


This content was produced with support of the Access to Energy Journalism Fellowship and Discourse Media www.http://discoursemedia.org.

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