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In Africa, Clean Energy Provides a Route to Clean Water

Uganda and South Sudan us solar PV to lower cost of pumping water

In Africa today more than 350 million people lack access to clean water, leaving them at risk of deadly diseases. At the same time, many parts of the continent are “energy poor” — electricity service is either intermittent or non-existent. Now, some development agencies are trying to kill two birds with one stone by using solar energy to run well systems.

Boy drinking water from a wellPhoto by USAID/Morgana WingardIn some places in Africa, the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent.

The eastern Africa countries of Uganda and South Sudan are implementing initiatives aimed at integrating renewable energy and water supply networks to enhance access to clean drinking water at an affordable cost and also improve pumping systems. The two countries are undertaking separate initiatives with support from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in a bid to address the inefficiencies in water pumping systems. In some places,  the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent .

Uganda is implementing a number of projects with the support of development partners and donors that will reduce water costs both in urban and rural areas through use of renewable energy. For example, the government is finalizing the second phase of the Energy for Rural Transformation project, financed partly by the World Bank. The project’s objective is to increase access to clean drinking water and also clean affordable energy. The project — which covers the country’s Mukono District sub counties of Nama, Nakusinga, Ntenjeru and Mpata — enables communities to power their water pumping systems using solar PV. Large areas of Mukono District are far from the national electricity grid, which means communities have to rely on diesel generators to run water systems, an expensive source of energy that contributes to high water rates. Although the state-owned National Water and Sewerage Corporation does not cover water supply in rural Uganda, it admits pumping water using energy supply from the grid or diesel power generators has increased its water pumping bill to an estimated US$9 million every year, accounting for 35 percent of total operating expenditure. And yet Uganda, like many countries in Eastern Africa, has plenty of sunshine, with estimated solar radiation of about 4-5 kWh/square meter/day.

A similar project, supported by Germany government agency Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), is helping the country’s water sector to improve its water pumping systems. “Inefficient pumping systems in Uganda’s water supply network causes high power demand,” GIZ says in one of its reports. “As energy costs make up about 40 percent of the overall operational costs, water tariffs are high and drinking water is not affordable for parts of the population.”

Uganda is also a beneficiary of a four-year initiative financed by the Africa Development Bank’s Water Supply and Sanitation Programme. The initiative, which ends in 2016, “will contribute to serving an additional 2.4 million people in rural areas and small towns across Uganda,” according to the bank. This includes construction of solar powered water supply systems to replace an estimated 1,250 hand-pumped wells at which people must queue up to get water. “At utility level, saving energy significantly saves costs translating into improved profitability and sustainability of service delivery,” Uganda’s Association of Private Water Operators says.

 South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation, has rolled out a related initiative in its Northern State that entails wooing irrigation farmers to switch from diesel-powered pumps to solar PV pumping systems. The switch from diesel pumps to those powered by renewable energy will help farmers reduce fuel cost for irrigating their commercial farms.  The country’s Ministry of Water estimates that fuel costs for water pumping account for up to 50 percent of a farmer’s total cost of production.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) project is being implemented in partnership with financial institutions in South Sudan that have devised a scheme that enables farmers to acquire solar PV wells with low-interest loans. The Agricultural Bank of Sudan, the Farmers Bank, the Savings Bank and the Islamic Bank have agreed to “systematize their micro-finance lending for PV irrigation pumps, to develop the internal capacities of the banks to structure micro-finance loan packages and assess loan risks, and to market innovative financial products to drive farmer take-up of PV pump technology.” South Sudan has an average solar radiation of 6.1kWh/square meter/day, which the Ministry of Energy says is “well distributed across the country.” In addition to saving farmers money, the solar PV wells will also decrease the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

 “As the world charts a more sustainable future, the crucial interplay among water, food and energy is one of the most formidable challenges we face, “UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said. “Without water there is no dignity and no escape from poverty." These new grassroots projects in Ugandan and South Sudan are succeeding in addressing that challenge.

Shem Oirere
Shem Oirere is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya with an interest in Africa’s energy, water and construction sectors and has covered the sector for both national and international publications.

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