Sunday, June 21, 2009

The untapped paradox of water and energy in South Africa

Image: Hartebeesport Dam in March 2009 by Kristina Gubic

Driving over the Hartebeesport Dam wall in March this year I couldn't help being struck by a wave of irony. Thousands of litres of water were pulsing over the dam wall - untapped, on its way to who knows where.

I was on my way to visit a rural community just 15 kilometres away from the dam that has been experiencing water shortages for several years. At the heart of Modderspruit's frustration is a supply line that sees water from the Hartebeesport Dam being taken on a 100 kilometre detour before trickling into the village. One sensible engineer could remedy this in a heartbeat, yet a group of dozens of officials at several municipalities continue to debate the solution while people from the community risk their lives daily crossing the N4 toll road to fetch water from a working borehole.

With several issues like climate change, a looming energy crisis and lack of water delivery to millions of South Africans in rural parts of the country, all colliding in my brain, I mused over the absence of a turbine on the dam wall that might harness the power generating capacity of the flow and help dilute our current dirty coal dominated energy mix.

Hydro power remains one of the cleanest forms of energy available to us. As the Gauteng rainy season has swelled over recent years - no doubt due to climate change - I wondered why has this avenue has not yet being explored? There is a real opportunity here to exploit a burgeoning environmental disaster and capture its megalithic flow for good. There are several opencast mines in the region of Brits and Rustenberg - who are no doubt massive energy consumers - and who all have an incentive from Eskom to reduce their energy demand on the grid and surely with some corporate collaboration, funding a feasibility study and the necessary technology would be a piece of cake?

Back in Modderspruit, as I stood talking to a women clad in an ANC campaign t-shirt, retelling the horrors of how those not nimble enough to haul their 25 litre drum of water back across the busy N4 without incident, I cast my own hopeful vote for a new government that will after 15 years stop blaming the legacy of Apartheid for the infrastrcuture backlog and just get on with the job.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Playpumps International - bringing clean drinking water to millions

During my time at PlayPumps International as their Communications and Media Manager I had the privilege of visiting over 100 rural school and communities around Southern Africa. I got to experience first hand how clean water is an instant bridge to good health and nutrition but also how it reduces the barriers of education for girls.....

Obama's Strings for development aid to Zimbabwe

So hats off to Morgan Tsvangarai for clinching a meeting at the White House within Obama's first 100 days of office.

On Saturday, Obama announced a $73 million aid package for Zimbabwe. The conditions? The money would not be diverted through government but through local development aid agencies.

This is great news as far as stemming the bureaucratic red tape that has delayed so much development manifesting on the ground, but then it really does boil down to which development agencies will be used. My experience with development agencies in Africa suggests the smaller they are and the closer they are to the original community impact zone, the more effective they are. Big agencies however, that have evolved into bureaucratic monsters are not too dissimilar from governments.

My concern for what Obama's conditions might spell for Zimbabwe, is this new aid package is likely to be diverted through USAid. I'm definitely not looking to undermine what positive impact USAid has had to date in Africa, but they do have some convenient restraints as far as service suppliers and consultants goes - which ultimately leads the money back to the US.

It would be revolutionary if USAid - recognising the potential power they hold here to achieve real sustainability would look at recruiting the wealth of Zimbabwean experts that now populate the globe as economic refugees.

There is not a single Zimbabwean I have met abroad that does not want to go home. Imagine the prospect the of Zimbabweans engaging in rebuilding their own country rather than temporary US expats?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is America the new begging bowl?

A sucker for a good cause - when a new appeal dropped into my mailbox yesterday, I sat up soberly and leaned into my screen:

"1 in 8 Americans is struggling with hunger" it said.

The very notion of 'America' and 'hunger' in the same sentence seems unthinkable when you're an African. In our minds, America is the fat, healthy, gluttonous success of capitalism. America's afflictions are consumerism, paternalism, heart attacks and obesity - not hunger.

But there it was, 33 million Americans starving. That's the equivalent of the entire population of Tanzania, or just 10 million shy of the entire population of South Africa.

The appeal also seems incongruous in light of President Obama's recent pledge of $73 million in donor aid to help rebuild Zimbabwe. (See my next blog called 'Obama's strings' blog for commentary on this).

If the plight of the American people is as dire as the appeal suggests, then this hardly seems the time to be spreading philanthropic cheer and deepening American debt.

At any rate, I digress. The point is that if it is possible that Americans cannot afford to feed themselves, it is equally possible that Africa could become the new breadbasket of the world.

Impossible you say? Consider this fresh perspective: Virtually all of the world's developed nations or most industrious nations actually fit inside Africa. All of these nations are self-sufficient in terms of food production, yet with the exception of China, all have far less arable land available to them for growing crops.

According to an FAO Survey in 2006, if different regions across Africa raised their food growing potential by between 150 and 700%, the continent that we have stigmitised with famine and poverty for as long as I've been alive, could actually feed the world. Now try this on for a new headline: "Africa saves the world from poverty"

Map source:
Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal