Micro-Hydro Power: A Long-Term Solution to Poverty in Rural Areas

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SEATTLE — Without micro-hydro power, people in rural areas would have to resort to buying kerosene, lanterns and gas cylinders. One way micro-hydro power alleviates poverty is by eliminating such expenditures.

While sub-Saharan Africa is home to 13 percent of the world’s population, it also contains 48 percent of all people who lack access to electricity. What makes matters worse is the high population growth on the continent, which translates to a growth in energy demand as well. In 2014, the continent achieved 1,000 MW of additional power generation. Africa needs to generate an additional 7,000 MW of energy each year in order to meet its projected energy needs.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydropower

Hydropower is a promising solution to this dilemma. Unlike oil or coal, hydroelectricity is not subject to fluctuations in the market. It also does not share their issues with storage or intermittency. Hydropower also has a lot of room to grow. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than 10 percent of hydropower potential has been developed, meaning the potential exists to quadruple the amount of power currently available by generating an additional 400 gigawatts.

Another benefit to hydropower is increased water security. Multipurpose dams can be used to generate energy, to contribute to flood management, to store water and to support an irrigation system. Around 15 years ago, the World Bank came to the conclusion that making use of Africa and Asia’s undeveloped hydropower potential was necessary to alleviate poverty while decreasing carbon emissions.

However, large hydropower developments do pose environmental and management risks like loss of biodiversity and resources as well as changes to the flow of the river that impact the local ecosystem. People often have to be relocated, and fishery stocks go down due to oxygen-free dead zones created when organic materials build up behind dams and consume oxygen while they decompose. There has even been research that shows that hydropower reservoirs may be a large contributor of methane because of the increase in natural methane bubbles that come from decaying materials when water passes through turbines.

In the case of southwestern Albania, large portions of an olive grove, a valley and even an entire village may soon be underwater due to plans to build a dam on the Vjosa River in Kuta. In coming years, 31 dams are projected to be constructed along the river and its tributaries. On top of such concerns, dam projects have uncertain long-term benefits due to local corruption and economic factors in developing countries.

A Better Solution: Micro-Hydro Power

On the other hand, micro-hydro power alleviates poverty while causing minimal environmental alterations and risks. That is not to say that all micro-hydro power plants are better, since the placement of any plant in the wrong place can lead to environmental harm. Many micro-hydro power plants can still lead to the same or worse consequences when compared to a large hydropower plant if they create environmental damage. Smaller hydro projects, or “run-of-the-river” projects, often have less impact on the flow of water because they do not need to create a reservoir. They may be safer, but also can have social and environmental consequences.

One success story that demonstrates how micro-hydro power alleviates poverty is a small hydropower plant built in 2009 in the Banda Miralamji village in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. It was constructed by digging a narrow channel from a nearby irrigation canal to divert the water, using local materials and installing a generator and turbine. Funded by the National Solidarity Program (NSP), the power plant generates enough electricity for 150 families.

According to Mir Zaman, engineer and manager of NSP Nangarhar, projects that provide power to the community are prioritized because of how many purposes electricity is used for. On top of that, hydropower plants contribute to economic growth and job creation. One example of this is the micro-hydro power plant built in Chhara Village in 1992. The consumers and local residents contributed to its construction and were paid on a daily basis. The plant provided energy to 538 households as well as to a newly established agro-processing mill.

Yet another example that exhibits how micro-hydro power alleviates poverty is the Gaura Rice Mill in the Harichaur village. The mill as well as household lighting, television and radios are powered by a local micro-hydro power plant built in 1997.

Other micro-hydro power plants in Nepal and Peru have also helped local communities increase agricultural production and meet the basic needs of their people.

In conclusion, micro-hydro power is a viable way to bring energy security to poor communities in rural areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. As long as the implementers of this solution carefully evaluate how best to exploit resources while addressing various social and environmental risks, micro-hydro power plants can greatly increase human well-being.

– Connie Loo

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Connie Loo

Connie writes for The Borgen Project from Monterey Park, CA. Her academic interests include earth system science and physics, with a desire to become an environmental specialist/engineer. In her spare time Connie likes to read sci-fi, fantasy stories and comics.

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