In Southern Africa the population is growing at a much faster pace than the rate at which the region is developing. This is putting pressure on resources, in particular, on energy provision. Less than half the region’s population is connected to grid electricity, meaning many rely on wood fuel despite its dire impacts on the environment. Countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa face a serious power crisis in recent months and need to rethink their energy production systems. Can a collaborative energy transition save Southern Africa from its crises and secure a cleaner future? Kennedy Nyavaya has the story.
In the past decade, Zimbabwe’s use of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) has increased by over 833% with reports pointing at consumption of over 50 million kilograms in the first half of 2022 alone.
Since 2012, when the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority was established, LPG is a government-endorsed alternative energy for household use as opposed to wood— currently the most popular fuel for cooking and heating locally—and grid electricity.
When compared to firewood, LPG is a more reliable and cleaner because although it is fossil-fuel based, the gas burns cleanly releasing less carbons and no smoke. Both factors are important for the environment and human health.
In October, the government of Zambia, Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the North, sent a delegation to learn more about the success of the LPG sector in a bid to understand the local use of the fuel better as well as ways to create a significant market for it back home.
“We have heard a success story about the growth of the LPG market in Zimbabwe. It’s something we have been trying to do in Zambia for quite a while now, it has not happened at the level and speed that we thought,” Zambia’s Assistant Director in the Department of Energy Mafayo Ziba said during the tour.
Essentially, the Zambian delegation’s visit opened a much-needed platform of information exchange between the relevant authorities in the energy sector from both countries. As the world at large and the African continent in particular makes efforts to find cleaner energy options and reduce its carbon footprint, transboundary collaboration plays an essential role.
Environmental strain and a deepening regional energy crisis
Energy production contributes about 40% of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global warming and eventually anthropogenic climate change.
Greenhouse gas emissions from Southern Africa can be considered very low (less than 3% of world total), but given the region’s underdevelopment, the countries –confronted by rapidly growing populations- face environmental degradation because of a serious dependency on wood fuel that causes loss of forests.
According to Ziba, Zambia has a deforestation rate of 250 000 to 300 000 hectares annually and most of their woodlands are lost because trees are being harvested for charcoal production and firewood.
For the same reasons, Zimbabwe loses some 330 000 hectares of forest per year, and land covered by forests is said to have declined by 16% since the year 2000.
Based on each of the Southern African countries’ average number of citizens with access to grid electricity, it is apparent that more than half of the region’s population is energy poor.
Southern Africa needs an urgent solution to its extreme power deficiency, which may also resolve the massive environmental damage caused by an over-reliance on trees that are not only essential for sustaining ecosystems but also serve as the world’s carbon sinks.
The energy situation has reached inexplicably dire levels in the region with countries not only failing to supply enough energy locally but agreed exports as well.
In September 2022, the president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa cut short his visit to the United Nations General Assembly to rush back home to help avert an energy crisis. This after Eskom, South Africa’s power utility company, announced stage 6 power cuts that meant locals would endure over six hours without electricity daily.
On the Northern side of its border, Zimbabwe, which purchases part of its electricity from Eskom, was also feeling the pinch amid massive power cuts and nationwide blackouts.
In Zambia, the average national access to electricity stands at 31%, with about 85% of their generation capacity based on hydroelectricity. But, as a result of successive climate-induced droughts, they have been experiencing unsettling power shortages.
This is a partial depiction of the power crisis that the Southern Africa bloc faces despite boasting of huge, clean and untapped resources – including solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal and wind– that all the countries could strategically manage to ensure mutual benefit.
A harmonized transition would be a boon for all
As an example, Zimbabwe purchases 100MW per day from Zambia, and also imports power from Mozambique as well as South Africa-in addition to sharing the Kariba Hydro-electric power station.
All of these countries receive a significant amount of sunlight -Zimbabwe, for example, has more than 300 days of sun annually- and they would benefit from investing in a combined project to harness solar power.
“It [collaboration] is important because we live in an interconnected world and as a region I think we need to get to a place where we begin to move together and harmonize our policies, regulations and standards,” says Ziba.
True to his sentiments, Southern Africa’s energy system is too interconnected for countries to function separately and that calls for collaboration in averting energy deficits and ensuring that more people get access. In addition, the region, whose members are pursuing separate energy transition plans, ought to unite in applying a united energy transition strategy.
This has proven to work partially between Zimbabwe and Zambia who have both invested in Kariba hydro-electric stations projects since 1955 and which continues to provide them with power. Despite failing to meet capacity lately due to successive droughts, similar yet climate change sensitive, transboundary projects like solar stations could help reduce the electricity deficits.
Additionally, countries in Southern Africa ought to not only share information but also facilitate easier and cheaper passage of renewable energy products as well as technology between borders in a bid to accelerate their renewable energy transitions.