Friday, October 21, 2011

Towards the Rio + 20 Conference: Energy challenges in Uganda

By Kimbowa Richard, Global South Development Magazine (October 2011)

Uganda like many members of the United Nations (UN) is preparing itself for a major international conference on sustainable development -The Rio + 20 Summit due on June 4 -6, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to the UN, the Rio+20 Conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro (1992, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. It is envisaged as a Conference at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government or other representatives. The Conference will result in a focused political document.

The objective of the Conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges. It will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Rio + 20 Conference: Uganda’s interests

The Rio + 20 Summit will take place against a backdrop of global development challenges to which some solutions have been found, and where others are yet to be addressed. In this article, I restrict myself to one major challenge for Uganda in relation to ‘green economy in the context of sustainable development’- one of the main themes of Rio + 20. But, I would also like link this with the importance of assessing Uganda and other countries’ performance in implementing the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation that built on the achievements of sustainable development made since 1992, to strengthen the implementation of Agenda 21 (the 40-chapter blue print for action that was adopted in Rio in 1992). Without this action, the agenda for the ‘South’ will be lost in ‘new’ abstract discussions of little practical consequence to addressing sustainable development loopholes.

Hence, for Uganda (and I guess many developing countries), it is important to prepare for this major Conference with unwavering efforts to assess the country’s performance since 2002, so as to inform the themes of the Conference including green economy in the context of sustainable development. I would like to illustrate this below, with a ‘live’ example of the energy situation in Uganda.

‘Energy poverty’: A challenge for Uganda’ economic growth and development

Energy is a vital factor in Uganda’s continued economic development, but today the country faces many energy-related challenges that threaten to undermine this development(GIZ, 2011). For a number of years, there has been significant public investment, primarily in an effort to expand the electricity supply. Nevertheless, the problems facing the energy sector still include an inadequate supply, a situation which is exacerbated by consumers’ inefficient use of the energy which is available.

Outside the urban areas, access to energy services remains very poor as the appropriate mechanisms are still missing. Only 5% of the rural population is connected to an electricity supply and 93% still rely on biomass for cooking. The use of solid fuels such as firewood and charcoal remains chronically inefficient throughout most of the country, and this adds enormous environmental problems to Uganda’s energy equation. The greatest contributing factor to this is the lack of awareness about the environment and the options for energy efficiency.

For example, as I write this article the power outage has happened 3 times due to rationing lasting up to 2-3 hours. This is affecting businesses and the efficient delivery of social services (schools, health centres and banking institutions) all over Uganda. One of the reasons for this is that Uganda’s main power supplier, Umeme, in July 2011 announced a 12-hour load shedding programme after private suppliers Aggreko, ElectroMax, and Jecobson switched off their thermal power supply to the national grid over non-payment of arrears by the government. Worse still, this month (September), Uganda’s Directorate of Water Development (DWD) has instructed to Eskom (Company generating hydropower) to step down hydro generation due to the need to comply with the recent water releases and major abstractions plan from the transboundary Lake Victoria basin water system that binds Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda under the auspices of the East African Community. In effect, this slaps a 24 hour load-shedding cycle once every 4 days on average (Umeme, 2011).

One of the worrisome implications of this is that many households and business entities have rushed to fuel wood (firewood and charcoal) and fossil fuels as alternatives to run generators (for those that can afford). But already for the period of ten years from 1996/7 to 2005/6, the value of household charcoal consumption has increased by more than 100%, attributable to larger consumption volumes and higher prices which two factors together, contribute to rapid forest depletion (NEMA, 2008).This drastic rise can actually be higher than 100% today given the growing urban population that demands charcoal every day due to the above.

This is straining Uganda’s economy more as trees are cut, resulting in deforestation and forest degradation, while the rising pump prices affect people’s disposable incomes, savings and have translated in high prices for basic commodities (since Uganda is a land-locked country). At the end of it all, we risk draining the progress made on reducing poverty and conserving the environment.

It is from the above situation, that I believe any discussion on ‘green economy’(that works for the poor) in relation to the energy challenge in Uganda should consider alternatives to hydropower reliance, expanding affordable and equitable decentralised energy access for the majority rural poor people, promoting energy efficiency in electricity use, fuel wood use, and other available sources, as well as policy wide incentives that can trigger more investment in the modern energy services to meet the needs of private entities and the rural folks.

I also believe that the discussion on ‘green economy’ in a‘Southern’ context should follow a logical assessment that identifies the constraints those who affect / are affected and to what degree, among others, before making strategic and practical recommendations to inform and / or influence the renewed political commitment on sustainable development at the Rio + 20 Summit next year.


1 comment:

  1. Kimbowa,

    Thank you for the post.

    Am I correct that some of this power supply issue is government created due to non-payment to electricity generators? If so, there must be some motive. Is it purely financial, or are there political issues involved?

    Are there plausible substitutes for charcoal and wood? I contended in one of my own blog posts that some of the popular social causes - such as green - are not going to resonate with people until they have basic needs taken care of.

    Is there synthetic version of charcoal? Can we make pellets out of hay stalks or corn stalks? Don't the Scottish burn cow dung to flavor their whiskey? None of these would help pollution but would help deforestation, under a one step at a time approach?