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Hydropower could supply all of Africa's electricity needs if cross-border cooperation was stepped up, according to a UN report launched last week (12 March) at the World Water Forum in Marseilles, France.
Africa currently generates just one third of its electricity from hydropower, but could learn from cooperation and training programmes with India and some Western countries, according to Ulcay Unver, coordinator of the UN World Water Assessment Programme, which produced its fourth edition of the World Water Development Report.
The report said African governments have begun to recognise the importance of cooperative electricity projects.
Several strong examples have begun to emerge, including the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) and the West African Power Pool. These bring together groups of national electricity companies under the authority of the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States respectively.
SAPP has created a common power grid between its 12 member states. Such cross-border cooperation is increasing, according to Amadou Hama Maiga, the deputy director general of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (IIWEE) in Burkina Faso.
He supported the UN's call to develop hydropower in Africa, but warned that the financial challenges of finding the money for dam and hydropower plants were significant.
Nonetheless, large projects are underway, including a collaboration between India's Tata Power company and the South African mining group Exxaro for renewable energy projects — including hydropower — in Botswana and South Africa.
A trans-national project to rehabilitate and expand the Inga hydroelectric dams in the Democratic Republic of Congo could generate 80 per cent of the electricity used in Africa by 2020, said Maiga.
Unver told SciDev.Net that technology projects are "essential drivers" of African development, but technology alone is not enough. "You may have the best technology but you have to be able to use and maintain it," he said.
To meet the need for skilled graduates, 30 African states are working with IIWEE to train 200 water engineers each year.
Some scientists have warned that the global push to develop hydropower carries certain risks, especially in developing countries.
Alain Vidal, director of the Challenge Programme on Water and Food — part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research — told SciDev.Net the best approach would be one that enabled stakeholders in the energy, food and water sectors to work together.
"Building river dams and developing hydropower should not compete with water and food security," he said.
He called for "smart dams and smart hydropower that take into account the impact on agriculture and fisheries", which he said could include cascading dams, and adding turbines to small, existing dams rather than building huge new projects.