Drought and Energy Production in East Africa: Seeking Resilient Solutions

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The most severe drought Eastern Africa has ever experienced hit this year, leaving the agriculture-dependent region at its mercy. The effects of six consecutive dry seasons have been devastating, particularly in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The 2010–2011 and 2016–2017 droughts are believed to be less severe than the six-year drought. Acute hunger, malnourished children, and the displacement of more than 2 million people in Somalia and Ethiopia are just a few of the devastating effects of the drought.

The relationship between drought and energy production is one of the realities of climate change that isn’t fully considered. Drought conditions can reduce all types of energy production and, in severe cases, cripple energy production. Rising temperatures alter precipitation patterns, melting glaciers, and minimize water resources. Reduced water supply reduces hydroelectric production and even temporary closure of energy facilities.

A good example is Kariba, the largest dam in the world, temporarily closed last November, causing an energy crisis for consumers in Zambia and Zimbabwe. In turn, both countries’ health care systems, the economy, and other aspects of daily life were impacted by power rations that lasted three months in Zambia and eight months in Zimbabwe.

In Tanzania, hydropower is proving unreliable since the government cites fluctuating water levels in the available dams as one of the causes of the country’s frequent power outages. Power outages are a bothersome norm in Tanzania during dry seasons, even though 49% of the 1,695 megawatts produced in the nation come from gas and oil sources. With every dry season, as in 2021 and 2022, authorities are frequently compelled to impose water and electricity rations in the country. Furthermore, because power and water rationing impact productivity, earnings, and profits, SMEs are the most impacted.

Fossil fuels tend to increase when hydroenergy production is reduced. Heat waves, a lack of cooling water, and lower energy production in one plant can all impact changes in the amount of energy produced by fossil fuel plants elsewhere, according to a recently published study that shows how drought affects electricity production in various ways. Using Kenya as an example, even though the country is the continent’s leader in geothermal energy production, energy imports and electricity costs are high.

The drought has impacted the availability of inexpensive hydropower and increased the need for more expensive thermal power. While addressing the energy crisis last year, the sitting Zimbabwean President called upon all operating thermal power plants to use coal to the fullest extent possible. “The Transport Ministry, particularly its rail arm, has a big arm to play; it has to deliver enough coal to all thermal stations of which must fire at full capacity,” He directed in his weekly column on the state-owned Sunday Mail.

An excerpt from President Mnangagwa’s statement, Another reminder on the urgency of Climate Proofing our Economy, Lives as published in the Sunday Mail.

“We have seen many leading economies reneging on global commitments to end thermal power. This should teach us a lesson; we cannot be sentimental about coal while our industries die from power shortages and when no support for the clean energy transition comes from those most to blame for destroying the global climate. We have abundant coal; it must be harnessed to meet our energy needs,” President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe stated when addressing the energy crisis last November.

The Geothermal Potential

Geothermal energy is heat (thermal) energy from the Earth (geo). Geothermal resources are hot water reservoirs that are naturally occurring or artificially created at various temperatures and depths below the surface of the Earth. Geothermal energy is renewable and emits no greenhouse emissions when generating it. And why is it better than hydropower – it uses less water. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal energy uses less water over its lifetime than most traditional electricity-generation technologies.

Energy expert Sebastian Sterl contends that dry seasons will continue to be a problem for East Africa, driving home the point that the region needs to diversify its energy supply., “so that something else can take the helm if hydro proves unavailable,” he was cited in the newspaper Le Monde. A potential remedy for drought’s threat to hydropower is geothermal energy, wind, and solar energy. According to estimates, East Africa has a geothermal potential of 20,000 MW.

Tanzania identified 52 geothermal power production spots as of April 2022, a reflection of the enormous geothermal potential in the country. According to an expert, the country’s geothermal resources have the potential to generate 5,000 megawatts of electricity. So far, five geothermal projects have been designated for development in the country, with four ready for power production. According to a prediction by Mr. Kato Kabaka, General Manager of Tanzania Geothermal Development Company (TGDC), one geothermal plant is anticipated to be operational by 2024.

What Steps Should Tanzania Take Against Energy Crisis?

I believe sources other than hydropower should be considered more in light of the impending drought and the increased vulnerabilities placed on East Africa’s hydropower resources. It is crucial to invest in more reliable and clean energy, given two facts: first, our race to net zero, and second, the anticipated population growth in Africa, increasing the electricity demand.

Researchers with the Climate Compatible Growth program conducted an analysis last year that showed nearly half of the new hydropower projects planned across 12 African countries, Tanzania included, would be financially unviable.

I suggest financial support for hydropower projects should be less readily available, and more avenues for wind, solar, and geothermal energy should be available. More research on the hydropower sector’s vulnerabilities is needed to inform policy and decision-makers better. In Tanzania, the 2015 energy crisis brought on by the drought should motivate the aggressive development of clean, renewable energy sources. Tanzania’s and Africa’s comfort with hydropower should not impede the development of other renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

A study that shows how, through several ways, drought impacts electricity production demonstrates that heatwaves, shortage of cooling water, and reduced energy production in one plant can influence changes in the amount of energy produced by fossil fuel plants elsewhere.

Through several compounding pathways, drought may impact fossil fuel power plant’s electricity production and emissions. While accompanying heatwaves can affect electricity demand, depletion reduces runoff and hydropower’s ability to produce electricity. Since many fossil fuel plants need large amounts of cooling water, a shortage of cooling water can also affect those plants’ operating effectiveness and ability to produce electricity.

More significantly, because electricity transmission networks interconnect different regions, drought conditions in one area may influence changes in the amount of energy produced by fossil fuel plants in another part.

A writer and a champion of change and sustainable development. She writes on climate change, gender justice and equality, human rights, education, Tanzania and the wider region of Eastern Africa.

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