SEATTLE — Five years ago, Zambia had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The country has large natural reserves of copper, which it mines and exports around the globe. Despite being landlocked, Zambia also has access to several major water sources, including the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made reservoir. For years, a network of hydroelectric plants has harnessed this water to provide Zambians with a cheap and abundant energy supply.
Since 2015, though, Zambian economic growth has stalled. There are, of course, many complicated reasons why this happened, but one of the primary causes is the extended period of drought that has battered southern Africa over the past several years.
The Effects of the Drought on Poverty in Zambia
As one would expect, the years-long drought has hit Zambian farmers hard, even threatening to cut this year’s maize crop in half. But the dry climate has threatened far more than Zambia’s food supply.
In 2015, hydroelectric plants fed by Zambia’s rivers and lakes supplied 98 percent of the country’s electricity. During the drought, the water supply in Zambia has simply not been able to keep up with the demand for power. The country’s energy deficit is so large that it has had to implement total blackouts that last for hours.
Poverty in Zambia was already a significant problem going into the drought—more than half the country was estimated to live below the poverty line in 2015. Since the blackouts began, once-thriving businesses have had to deal with extended and sometimes unforeseen periods where work is impossible. Large businesses, including the all-important copper mines, have laid off thousands of workers. Meanwhile, some small business owners have been forced to arrange their work and sleep schedules around the power outages in order to keep their doors open.
Adapting to the Crisis
With the drought continuing, energy industry experts have advised hydroelectric-reliant countries like Zambia to invest in alternative energy. The Zambian government has responded to the crisis with a number of initiatives meant to restore stability to the country’s power supply. In 2017, it launched the REFiT program to promote the development of renewable energy sources.
In mid-July, the government officially partnered REFiT with the African Development Bank. In the agreement, the bank approved a $50 million loan and a $2.5 million grant to the government, which plans to use the funds to ramp up the production of solar power. This program alone could provide electricity to as many as 300,000 Zambians.
Potential for Change
This focus on renewable energy has larger implications in Zambia than it would in more developed countries like the United States. It is not only an attempt to clean and diversify the energy being used, it is also a necessary step towards providing that energy in the first place. For this reason, programs like the partnership with the African Development Bank have great potential to impact poverty in Zambia.
Nearly 11 million Zambians live without access to electricity—more than half of the country’s urban population and 86 percent of the rural population. With power this hard to come by, it will be nearly impossible for Zambia’s young economy to develop further.
Much of southern Africa relies on subsistence farming to survive, which leaves Zambians living in poverty at risk of malnutrition in the current drought. Because Zambia has one of the highest birth rates in the world, the demand for food and jobs will only grow in the coming decades. Access to electricity is vital to any economy looking to modernize, and poverty in Zambia may worsen without it.
Thankfully the government is responding to this need and even aims to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. While the crisis caused by the drought will not be solved overnight, partnerships with the African Development Bank and other groups like USAID promise to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zambians.
– Joshua Henreckson