Water not only for energy

There is an urgent need for a increased water use in many Southern African countries, so the question is not whether dams should be built but how best to design and operate them. Dams should be able to meet various needs, including hydro energy and agricultural irrigation. However, this is not that simple, according to NAI researcher Dean Kampanje Phiri, as the energy sector largely dictates the management of water resources in the region.

Most African states have an energy deficit and intend to maximise energy production from dams, with little or no consideration for the environment or agricultural needs. It is very costly to build hydropower dams. This means the more lucrative business of selling energy always wins out over irrigation to produce more maize. On the other hand, if poverty reduction is on the agenda, then farmers need to increase their productivity. This calls for more water to irrigate crops for a second annual harvest.

“A trade-off is necessary. We need to find a balance in which agricultural needs are met and environmental damage is kept to a minimum, without compromising energy production too much” says Dean Kampanje Phiri.

This can be difficult to achieve on a national level, but it’s much more so on a regional level, which is often the case, since the water flows through several countries. Thus, a trade-off in the form of energy reduction at a particular dam might only yield benefits to another country downstream.

“Yet another dilemma is that governments prefer to promote large-scale commercial farming rather than smallholder farming. So perhaps this increased water use for agricultural production might, if not well considered, lead to more land-grabs and investment by commercial farms at the expense of local farmers,” Dean Kampanje Phiri warns.  

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