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Energy Policy in Sudan Ignores Climate Risks

After seven years of construction and $1.9 billion in investment, a new hydroelectric dam complex in eastern Sudan is finally nearing completion. The first of four power generators at the Upper Atbara and Setit Complex went online in early March, and the rest of the facility should be operational just in time to help Sudan cope with its annual summer power shortage. These seasonal shortages have become routine in Sudan, and have resulted in protests every year since 2013.

Once all four generators are operating, the dam is expected to boost Sudan’s total electricity output by around 15 percent, reducing pressure on the country’s faltering energy infrastructure and politicians alike. Despite the fact that petroleum products make up more than two-thirds of Sudan’s exports, domestically Sudan relies on oil for only a fifth of its overall electricity generation, with the rest coming from hydropower.

Sudan’s population is growing rapidly, increasing more than 50 percent from 28 million people in 2000 to 41 million in 2016. Its economy is growing rapidly too, ballooning from a GDP of $12 billion in 2000 to $97 billion in 2015. Sudan’s increasing population and thriving economy are likely to heighten demand for electricity well beyond current output levels. The Upper Atbara and Setit Complex will buy the government some time, but it may only be a matter of a few years before growth catches up to the capacity boost the dams will provide.

Sudan’s hydroelectric potential has a finite upper bound, delimited by the amount of rain that falls in the watersheds that feed Sudan’s rivers. The specter of climate change threatens to disrupt historical rainfall trends in northeast Africa, casting the future of hydroelectricity in the region into doubt. While specific long-term forecasts for the region differ (ranging from a 30 percent increase to a 78 percent decrease in river flows), current evidence suggests that weather cycle extremes are already becoming more pronounced: droughts are becoming dryer, and flooding is becoming even more severe.

The Upper Atbara and Setit Complex dams the Atbara and Setit rivers at a location 8 miles (13 km) upriver from where the two watercourses converge. This convergence point is, in turn, just 40 miles (64 km) upriver from the Khashm el-Girba Dam, built in 1964. The Atbara and Setit rivers ultimately join up with the Nile, meeting at a point about 180 miles (290 km) northeast of Khartoum.

Both rivers now feed into reservoirs which pool above the twin dams. Both rivers originate in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, where they are fed by seasonal rains. These rains typically last from July to October, with river levels peaking in August. After October, the rivers begin to dry. Once they’ve carried the year’s final rains to meet the Nile, the rivers shrivel down into chains of small, disconnected pools.

Atbara and Setit rivers. (CNES)

The seasonal nature of the Atbara and Setit rivers makes electricity generation at the new dams dependent on rain patterns that may well shift as a result of climate change. Increased rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands could exert undue stress on the dams, and may result in failure if flooding is severe enough. Decreased rainfall during the dry seasons, on the other hand, would severely restrict the dams’ productive capacity. If predictions of amplified weather extremes hold true, Sudan faces an increasingly dry future, punctuated by brief yet intense periods of flooding.

The dams contain reservoirs which, if filled to capacity, would hold roughly 2.7 billion cubic meters of water. Recent satellite imagery shows that the dams are indeed beginning to fill. Reducing the flow of water through the Atbara and Setit Complex in order to fill the reservoirs restricts the amount of water able to reach the reservoir behind the Khashm el-Girba Dam. This restriction decreases the productivity of electric generators at Khashm el-Girba. Lower water levels in the Khashm el-Girba Reservoir, in turn, reduce the volume of water that can be diverted into the New Halfa Irrigation Project system. This system sustains roughly 900 square miles (2,300 square km) of farmland, although in recent years the area has struggled with water shortages that have reduced crop yields. New Halfa was created in 1964 to house and feed some 50,000 people from north Sudan who were displaced, ironically enough, when the town of Wadi Halfa was flooded by the Nile after the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

Even if rainfall in the Nile basin were to remain constant in the future, increased damming ultimately decreases the total volume of water that can be used to generate electricity, irrigate crops, or serve as drinking water. Water that evaporates from reservoirs constitutes more than 7 percent of all the fresh water consumed by humans each year. Building more dams creates more reservoirs, increasing water surface area and allowing more water to evaporate before it can be used. In a country struggling with an energy shortage and with an uncertain climate future, dams promise only short-term solutions, and may well create more problems as economic and demographic growth increase demand for power, water, and food.

Whether rainfall increases or decreases in the Nile basin, cooperation over resource allocation will be essential in order to ensure that no country takes more than its fair share of water. Sudan’s water supply is not only dependent on rain falling in Ethiopia, but also on Ethiopia not saving too much of this water for itself. Likewise, Sudan must seek to avoid conflict with Egypt by ensuring that it doesn’t prevent too much water from reaching the Egyptian portion of the Nile.

China is Sudan’s largest trading partner and its influence will significantly impact Sudan’s ability to achieve energy sustainability. The Chinese state-owned company, China Three Gorges Corporation, built the Upper Atbara and Setit Complex, and now the Chinese government is financing the ongoing construction of Sudan’s first nuclear energy plant. While nuclear power is certainly a welcome addition to Sudan’s energy portfolio, Sudan’s energy needs could be met far more simply and efficiently with solar power.

Sudan only consumes about 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. This figure is far below the total amount of solar power generated in countries with far less sun such as Germany and the United Kingdom. Sudan is among the sunniest countries in the world, which gives it a much higher overall capacity for solar power generation than the cloudier — albeit wealthier — countries of northern Europe. Unlike the rains of the Ethiopian highlands, the sun can be depended on as a year-round energy resource. China leads the world in solar power generation, and could surely benefit from exporting this technology to Sudan and other trading partners. The fact that it hasn’t so far reflects a lack of political will on the part of the Sudanese government to invest in a diverse energy portfolio that can stand up to the pace of growth.

Although the specific effects of climate change in the Nile basin are yet to be determined, what’s clear is that it is irresponsible for Sudan to continue to rely on hydropower as a panacea. The Upper Atbara and Setit Complex may help Sudan through this year’s summer energy shortage. However, climate change could easily threaten the future viability of water-based power in a region where water is already so scarce. Sudan’s best option now is to develop an array of sustainable alternative energy sources, leveraging its trade relationship with China, in order to secure sustainable growth for its population and economy.