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What is the solution to Africa’s energy crisis?

Biofuel and renewable energy sources may hold the key to Africa’s energy crisis. Without intervention, this crisis is set to grow — among others, in Southern African cities such as Lusaka in Zambia, Harare in Zimbabwe, Gaborone in Botswana and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

“The continent is rich in renewable resources which can benefit the majority of people within a few years,” Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said in an address at the ministerial meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad), which ended in Nairobi on Friday.

Ticad was initiated by Japan in 1993 to address threats posed to the environment. Since then, the UN, the Global Coalition for Africa, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank have joined the initiative.

Steiner warned that the continent is in danger of being locked into a development path that will always place it behind the rest of the world. African countries should look at their own resources for their developmental needs and strategies.

He added that if the global powers were serious about meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it was necessary to rethink expensive energy proposals.

Long-term benefits

Although he had praise for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), a continental economic restructuring plan, he pointed out that some of its energy proposals will only benefit the poorest people in the next 20 to 30 years.

To harness hydro-electricity, as Nepad proposes, dams have to be built, which could lead to the displacement of communities and which often have negative environmental effects.

More than 80% of Africa’s population are without electricity. This means that human development suffers, as schools, hospitals, businesses and computer networks all rely on electricity.

According to a new report by the World Bank, Global Economic Prospects: Managing the Next Wave of Globalisation 2007, the world population is expected to rise from 6,5-billion to eight billion by 2030. This translates into an annual growth rate of 60-million people.

More than 97% of this growth will take place in developing countries. The mathematics is simple: more people will demand more fuel resources. Moreover, the energy needs of the urban resident are greater than that of the rural resident.

Back in 1999, a report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), titled Energy-Environment Linkages in African Cities, made it clear that while most of Africa was essentially rural, the rate of urbanisation was alarming.

A number of cities already dominated their respective national economies by 1999. Apart from the ones in Southern Africa, others were Lagos in Nigeria, Cairo in Egypt, Nairobi in Kenya, and Kampala in Uganda.

Urbanisation

In 2007, the majority of people in the world will for the first time in human history be living in urban areas, Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN Habitat, told the conference.

Tibaijuka said that 75% of energy is consumed in cities and towns, which demands investment in urban energy generation and delivery. “No country has ever reduced poverty without investing substantially in energy. Energy is central to all human development goals. You cannot have water provision or education or health without energy.”

In Africa, due to the lack of electricity, millions of people are dependent on natural vegetation in their continuous search for firewood to cook. Forests are destroyed in the process, which has a negative effect on the environment as eco-systems are wiped out.

The destruction of natural vegetation could lead to desertification when there are no water-catchment systems to feed rivers and streams. And when there is no water, the population in such an area suffers in many ways. They cannot plant crops and their animals die.

The question is whether African countries are up to the task of developing their own resources. Wangari Maathai, Nobel laureate and Kenya’s Assistant Minister of Environmental Affairs, said: “Africa is not poor. But the people of Africa are poor. They do not have the skills to use the resources they have in abundance. There can be no development in Africa if the continent does not use its resources effectively.”

As an example of a cheap and effective way to store water, Steiner cited the harvesting of rainwater in Kenya. For between $100 and $150, a household of eight people can in a short time be assured of a constant source of water.

He challenged African countries to be brave and set their own agenda in establishing a framework for individual countries to invest in their future — instead of relying on developed nations to point the way to development. — IPS

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