Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Friday, July 27

Africa's energy emergency

In a recent article for the Center for American Progress, Rebecca Schultz writes about the drain on African economies from importing oil—so significant that it may be offsetting the gains of the World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. The world’s rising oil prices pose a particularly serious threat to Africa’s urban working classes, the cornerstones of countries’ development.

Much has already been made of the ‘oil curse’ in Africa, wherein oil exportation has dragged down the economies by corrupting the politics of countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and Cameroon. But in countries such as Senegal and Uganda, which lack exploitable reserves of their own and have to import their petroleum, oil is taking a similarly devastating toll—and it’s only getting worse.

In Senegal, a bastion of stability and democracy in West Africa, the burden of powering its diesel generators is eroding the once promising prospect of achieving the MDGs. The government is paying twice what it did a few years ago to import oil, which amounts to seven times what it receives in debt relief and is equal to what it spends on education and health care combined—about 8.5% of GDP.

In Uganda, the squeeze of fuel prices and the shroud of blackouts have become parts of everyday life. The country adheres to an austere load-shedding schedule, whereby power is cut to areas every other day, which is costing the economy, at minimum, $250 million per year. Most of Uganda’s electricity comes from hydroelectric dams on the Nile, but with Lake Victoria’s water level falling as a result of global warming, the output from those plants is diminishing, which forced Uganda to buy two diesel generators in 2006. Those cost the government $150 million to run annually, which has led to the doubling of electricity bills in the last year and to widespread diesel shortages. In a country that has a per capita GDP of $280, people pay more for fuel than in the U.S.—$5.50 per gallon at filling stations and $0.24 per kilowatt hour of electricity, three times the $0.08/kWh that Americans pay.

Many other African countries face similar troubles—e.g., Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia in West Africa, like Senegal, import 100% of their oil; Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi in East Africa, like Uganda, depend on the shrinking capacity of hydroelectricity.

Schultz writes: “The World Bank estimates that poverty has increased as much as 6 percent in some parts of the world due to the hike in oil prices in recent years. ... The poorest countries in the world consume an almost negligible share of the millions of barrels of oil consumed every day globally, yet they are hit the most by rising world oil prices—and then hit again by the effects of climate change associated with burning hydrocarbons.”

Indeed, Africa pays a disproportionate price for the oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S., Western Europe, and China. But the continent’s own fossil-fuel burning also contributes to the problem and is part of a vicious circle that poses imminent economic and environmental threats. This problem is particularly acute in a place like Uganda, which, as it burns more diesel to compensate for its increasingly ineffective dams, only aggravates their impotence by contributing to the forces desiccating Lake Victoria in the first place.

This cycle is also likely more malignant, and its effects more direct, than many might assume. While Africa’s GHG contributions may be marginal in the bigger picture, there are other anthropogenic factors in play—black carbon, commonly known as soot, now appears to have a major global warming impact. In fact, research indicates that BC may have a larger effect than even methane, making it second only to carbon dioxide as a warming agent.

BC particulates are released from inefficient combustion, such as in diesel engines, wood and charcoal cookstoves, and outdoor biomass burning—all prevalent throughout Africa. Because of its ill effects on human health (the WHO reports 2.7 million people die annually from air pollution), BC emissions have been reduced substantially in most of the developed world; so, for a country like the U.S., where 99% of light-duty vehicles use gasoline and the diesel vehicles that are on the road abide by relatively strict particulate emission standards, soot may not seem to present much of a threat. But in Africa, where diesel is the norm, there are weak or nonexistent emission standards, and vehicles are often purchased second-hand from wealthier countries and thus tend to have older, more worn-down engines that emit more particulates, the hazards are great.

Rich countries are able to offload much of the cost of their GHG pollution onto poor countries because global warming affects everywhere equally. For developing countries, however, while BC contributes to net warming too, its immediate effects aren’t dispersed uniformly in the way those of GHGs are, instead tending to be much more proximate in space and time. So, in addition to propagating overall warming, BC also brings more localized ecological perils.

While aerosols—sulfates, nitrates, carbonaceous particles (including BC), sea salt, and mineral dust—have typically been thought to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere, offsetting global warming, BC seems to be an exception—though it blocks sunlight from reaching the surface, because it is black it absorbs this light rather than reflecting it, thereby warming the atmosphere.

Generally, BC alters surface pressures and winds, affecting temperatures, clouds, and precipitation. More specifically, it increases air temperature relative to ground temperature—because it warms the atmosphere while blocking sunlight—one result of which is reduced overall precipitation. But because the air heated by BC also becomes less stable, spurring convection, clouds are attracted and bring rainfall to otherwise dry areas, which is then balanced elsewhere by subsidence (the downward movement of air), making other areas drier. Such changes can be devastating to the delicate balance struck by many Africans living at subsistence levels and the fragile economies they occupy. And, returning to Uganda’s energy woes, while it’s difficult to link Lake Victoria’s falling water level to any one cause, it’s reasonable to think that the smog emitted from Nairobi, Kampala, Arusha, and elsewhere around the lake’s shores is playing a role in the droughts afflicting the region.

The silver lining of BC’s localized effects is that there are thus also local solutions. About half the BC comes from energy generation, the other half mostly from open burning of vegetation. So, more efficient diesel engines, cleaner cookstoves, greener agricultural practices, and of course alternative fuel sources are all viable avenues for ending the cycle of fossil-fuel burning, environmental degradation, and thus more fuel burning. And, as Schultz points out, the opportunities are vast for cultivating renewable energy in Africa. South Africa, Morocco, Madagascar, Kenya, and Ethiopia all show potential for wind power generation, both coastal and inland, and forthcoming studies in Namibia and Angola are expected to show the same. As well, the Rift Valley has a 9,000-megawatt geothermal electrical potential, which could feasibly solve the power problems of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda. Africa’s fertile farmland is also ripe for harvesting biofuels; 60% of the continent’s population currently lives off agriculture, already growing desirable fuels like sugarcane, maize, and soy, while other plants, like jatropha, a bush that grows on arid land not likely to be in use for food production, might soon be added to the list. South Africa, in fact, already has an $800 million plan for building a biofuel industry, and Kenya is preparing to have a go at photovoltaic cell assembly, as prices are dropping and use is expected to expand with newer, cheaper Chinese-made cells.

Changes can occur on a much smaller scale, too, and oil isn’t the only type of fuel that begs for an alternative. For instance, Barrett Sheridan wrote recently in Newsweek about a Berkeley physicist, Ashok Gadgil, who has developed a stove for Darfuris that requires 75% less firewood. The persistent need to find wood in Darfur’s barren landscape has put countless women and children at risk of murder, mutilation, and rape since the conflict erupted. As the environment deteriorates and the security situation fails to improve, Darfuris have had to travel farther, for longer times, in increasingly dangerous areas to find fuel to cook their food. This new stove could reduce significantly the need for such treacherous trips and could save people as much as $200 a year in money that might otherwise be spent on purchasing firewood.

Schultz writes that Africa’s oil troubles are likely to hit the urban poor and the working class the hardest; but, with Darfur as an extreme example, oil constitutes only one facet of a larger energy crisis—between the degradation of natural resources from forces like deforestation and desertification, the rising costs of importing outside resources like oil, and the environmental and human health impacts of so many common, nonrenewable fuels, the need for change is becoming dire.

It’s important, however, to avoid succumbing to seductively simplistic explanations, such as theories based on environmental determinism, and asserting that the array of troubles facing African nations—be they Kampala’s blackouts or Darfur’s protracted fighting—are a product of the constraints of the natural environment and how humans have used—and abused—it. Undoubtedly, there are also much more human elements involved—e.g., the brutal tactics of the Khartoum regime, or the Ugandan government’s development and resource management policies. But, with news media and foreign donors who tend to focus on the latest natural or manmade disaster, it’s also easy to ignore the root causes of so many of these problems, of which Africa’s energy crisis is perhaps the preeminent one.

If alternatives aren’t soon found at every level, from the woman who risks her life searching for increasingly scarce firewood to the country straining its economy to import oil, it is hard to see how much progress can be made on more immediate problems, like persistent conflict, political corruption, or foundering economies. Engaging Africa in international efforts to forestall global warming while pushing for homegrown solutions at macro and micro levels should be a priority of Western and African leaders alike. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade might serve as one model: he has signed an agreement with Brazil to bring its technical expertise in this realm to Africa through a series of educational exchanges, and he is founding a “green OPEC,” a coalition of “13 non-petroleum producing African nations with a mission to create jobs and enhance political and economic security by diversifying away from oil into clean energy.”