By Leah McMillan
One might recall the power outage that swept across north-central United States and south-eastern Canada in 2003. Businesses were incapacitated, many closing their doors to wait out the blackout. Approximately 55 million people were impacted, necessary services such as hospitals were forced to rely on backup generators for the occasion.
In stark contrast, the Tanzanian government has been attempting to reassure its citizens via local newsmedia that electricity will improve “soon” – a promise that remains to be filled, despite mention of improvements in newspapers over the past few months. A government with limited capacity to fund electricity, coupled with a two-year long drought that has severely depleted sources for hydroelectric dams, electricity in Tanzania is unreliable. At times the power is rationed. At the beginning of the week, major newspapers reveal when each community can anticipate electricity cuts.
Zanzibar, an archipalego 35 km into the Indian Ocean off the Tanzanian shoreline, relies on tourism for one-quarter of its GDP. The entire island was without electricity from mid-November 2009 to March 2010, resulting in a rapid depletion of tourists. With electricity shortages come failed life-saving equipment, operating machines that do not function, and doctors unable to actually see their patients, let alone provide needed medical services, such as x-ray machines for helping with fractured limbs. Yes, generators exist, but with fuel prices rising at prices higher than in parts of the West, these are an inexpensive, unviable option for the majority of Tanzanians, health practitioners included.
Throughout Africa, children are told to complete homework to end the cycle of illiteracy that sees 23% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa youth illiterate. But they can’t read in the dark. Mothers are told ceiling fans lessen the incidence of mosquitoes thereby decreasing the risk of malaria to their babies – a disease that kills 1 million African infants annually. But they can’t turn the fan on. The World Health Organization reports 2 million deaths per annum related to cooking by burning solid fuels inside their homes, yet how else does one cook without electricity?
African governments have been encouraged to utilize alternative energy sources to both counter their electricity challenges while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability continent-wide. According to the World Energy Council, only 7% of Africa’s available hydropower has been sourced. The Nile River’s hydroelectric potential is put at 8000 MW. In comparison, it is estimated that East African region has an installed capacity of 1800 MW. Meanwhile, the Congo Basin, for example, could provide electricity for almost one-third of the continent’s population if promoted properly – a plea that Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai has been trying to move from idea into action
The speed at which weather patterns change, and the unpredictability that is leaving even the most attuned nomadic farmer perplexed, are direct results of a changing climate. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 75 to 250 million people in Africa are expected to be exposed to an increase of water stress by 2020 due to the effects of climate change. Without question, the effects of climate instability are expected to fall disproportionately on Africa’s poor and risk reversing gains made in poverty reduction over the past decade.
Africa has been told to develop. It is often told how to develop. It is often told what to develop. In order to develop, the continent came to 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Denmarkwith a unified agenda – the first time in history the continent has approached an international conference with one common document. But not one of the needs presented in that document, the Nairobi Declaration, were accounted for in the rather weak ‘Copenhagen Accord’ that resulted. Yes, more funding was promised, but questions about sourcing remain elusive.
It is not simply up to the West. African governments themselves must make more provisions for climate change adaptation. TANESCO, for example – the Tanzanian Electricity Supply Company – has been cited by Tanzanian local anti-corruption advocacy groups as one of the most corrupt branches of government. Often enough, African governments have placed climate change at the bottom of their national priorities. This has to change if they are to make any progress in dealing with the alarming trends taking place. More importantly, climate change adaptation strategies have to be strengthened.
Climate change isn’t simply about a changing climate. It has far-reaching consequences that permeate every part of society, electricity included. Following the anti-climactic finale to Copenhagen, civil society organizations and select governments, have been increasingly vocal about the need for a more concrete declaration at the next climate change conference in Mexico in November 2010. Perhaps if this conference operated without electricity, the very real and very urgent need for an international commitment to climate change would be remembered.
Leah McMillan is a PhD Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Balsillie Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).
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