Power to the people

A book about hydropower in Zambia might not make your list of “must read” titles, but if you care about the climate emergency, then there are two reasons to take note. First, we need practical and sustainable global solutions to power generation in the developing world. Second, “The Political Economy of Hydropower Dependent Nations: a case study of Zambia” is written by Liberal Democrat Dr. Imaduddin Ahmed and therefore worthy of your attention.

This book makes grim reading for hydropower enthusiasts: climate change is causing drought and emptying reservoirs. Drought is therefore causing power supply disruption, making it hard for nations wishing to diversify into manufacturing and away from relying on mining or subsistence agriculture. When there are frequent outages, manufacturers and others use highly polluting diesel generators. (Anyone spending time in Africa will be familiar to the rattling drone and greasy smell of generators that supply as much as a fifth of the continent’s energy).

Hydro plants can also have a devastating effect on biodiversity and communities living in the way of projects. Anyone following the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam saga will know that trying to monopolise the Nile (or Turkey’s plans for the Tigris and Euphrates) has brought several countries downstream to the brink of violence.

For decades the World Bank applied a template for development based on the Tennessee Valley Authority, an FDR-era project that revolutionized the lives of millions of poor Americans. Put simply, the TVA stimulated a consumer boom for US-made products and created employment. The World Bank then imposed the TVA model on countries with no domestic manufacturing base, meaning that America had new export markets for its goods.

The World Bank began funding hydro power plants on the Zambezi in 1956, giving the copper mines (run by foreign companies paying tax elsewhere) the energy they needed. Few local jobs were created – a situation prevailing now in many developing world countries where China is building projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The eventual economic uptick in Zambia was then wiped out in the 1990s when international financial institutions imposed structural adjustment, forcing governments to sell off their assets and drop import tariffs. All these years later, only 33% of Zambians have access to the grid: it remains geared to the benefit of the mining companies who consumer 70-80% of power and pay subsidised prices.

Dr Ahmed runs through the alternatives to hydro, suggesting a mix of sources, and regional integrated power grids. But where the World Bank left off, Chinese state companies now secure construction contracts and mining concessions through corruption (according to a former director of the Central Bank of Zambia). We are reminded that the world needs an efficient means of storing sustainably produced energy. Despite its rather heavy-going appearance, this book is an easy and fascinating read for anyone interested in the developing world and/or the environment.

* Rebecca Tinsley is a member of the Liberal International British Group executive, and the founder of the human rights group, www.WagingPeace.info. She stood for Parliament twice for the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

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