August 28, 2009

Weekly News Roundup: Energy and Climate Change in Africa

This week featured a number of stories which highlight the risks and challenges climate change pose to Africa, as well as a variety of developments related to energy production on the continent.

Sub-Saharan Africa has long been identified as an area projected to be significantly and negatively affected by climate change, with likely effects including

flooding, drought, and food shortages. A few of these scenarios have already begun to manifest themselves, offering a glimpse of what could become increasingly common occurrences. In Egypt, rising sea levels are threatening to flood the Nile Delta with saltwater, and in the process destroy agricultural output in the country’s breadbasket region – an area that produces over 60% of the country’s food and which Egypt “relies on unconditionally for survival.”

Kenya, meanwhile, is facing an acute scarcity of water, as drought conditions have left 3.8 million people in need of emergency food aid and shut down hydroelectric plants, leading to blackouts in Nairobi. Agriculture is also threatened in Kenya; the grain harvest is expected to drop by 28% and food prices have already risen by 130%.

There are implicit security concerns in both cases, as decreased agricultural output combined with an unpopular government in Egypt and simmering ethnic tensions in Kenya threatens to exacerbate existing tensions and provoke unrest. Indeed, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has warned that prolonged drought could create a “catastrophe” potentially leading to a renewal of the ethnic violence that erupted in Kenya following elections in 2007. And such concerns are less of a stretch than a casual observer might imagine; ongoing drought in neighboring Somalia is widely acknowledged as a contributing factor in the country’s spiral into anarchy.

Such developments may also spark controversy during the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations in December, as ministers from several African countries met early in the week to lay out a unified position demanding compensation for Africa due to the deleterious effects of climate change upon the continent. It is believed that the African Union will ask for between $67 billion and $200 billion annually in compensation.

Meanwhile, on the energy front, Nigeria followed its usual pattern of taking one step forward and two steps back in resolving the insurgency plaguing its oil-rich Niger Delta region. In a potentially positive development, one senior Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) commander and several hundred rebels handed over a cache of weapons as part of a government-sponsored amnesty program. However, other MEND commanders responded by suspending peace talks, and there is speculation that a new campaign against oil facilities is being prepared.

Meanwhile, Uganda is set to emerge as a much more important player in the world energy industry after Tullow announced a “significant discovery” in the country, believed to exceed 700 million barrels. While such initial estimates are notoriously shaky, supermajors BP and Shell have expressed considerable interest in the project.

Finally, while Africa is usually considered mostly a hydrocarbon energy source, there are also indications that it is increasingly set to emerge in the renewables industry. Western European nations are aggressively pursuing a large solar facility in the Sahara Desert, aimed at providing nations with a source of significant renewable energy, as well as a much-sought alternative to Russian gas. While significantly more controversial than the proposed Sahara project, there are also rumblings to link Europe to a proposed hydroelectric dam (that would be the largest such dam in the world) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally, while the aforementioned drought in Kenya has turned off the power coming out of hydroelectric plants, it has also sparked plans for an ambitious, forward-looking venture in the country that, if completed, would be the continent’s largest wind farm.