Local energy provides peace, prosperity and accountability where big projects fail
John Magrath Programme Researcher
25th May 2012
Ahead of next week's Ashden Awards, John Magrath examines how one winner has brought electricity and employment to remote provinces of Afghanistan, showing that small projects that respond to local needs and sensitivities can succeed where big ticket energy investments fail.
Once a year the Ashden awards are presented for programmes that demonstrate the power and potential of renewable energy. It's that time again and on Tuesday next week (May 29th) the 2012 winners will be appearing at the Ashden annual conference at the Royal Geographical Society in London. The morning is given over to UK winners then the afternoon sees the international award winners present on the theme "making universal energy access a reality".
It should be a fascinating event. Topical too. Richenda Van Leeuwen, Senior Director of the Energy and Climate Team for the United Nations Foundation, will take ideas from the conference directly to Rio+20 next month, so come and participate and help send a message to Rio.
But is making universal energy access a realistic goal? Or a pipedream? Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian recently about the utter muddle that is (or rather, isn't) Britain's energy policy. Energy choices are radically circumscribed by cost and by carbon considerations, but these can pull in different directions. Energy is essential for just about everything we do; as a result it is pulled this way and that by different needs, goals, powerful and vociferous
interest groups and fervent and opinionated experts.
So what are the "right" policies to pursue? If our attention is solely on getting energy to the world's poorest people who currently have least access then it seems obvious that because they have the least influence (voice or money) then they will always lose out in the clamour. Peter Bosshard of International Rivers has written eloquently (or despairingly) about this in a post on AlertNet.
Big new investments in energy infrastructure are in the pipeline (sometimes quite literally) but these stand to pass over the head of the poorest (again, often quite literally). He takes the World Bank particularly to task for investing in big projects that will only benefit big players (by fair means or - quite likely - foul ones), like the Inga hydro scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead he argues, the World Bank should invest in mini-grids and off-grid solutions. Diversification and
decentralisation, he argues, will create jobs locally and strengthen the institutions of civil society which are often overwhelmed by large-scale, top down infrastructure projects.
Mini-hydro in Afghanistan
The experiences of one of the Ashden winners this year certainly backs up Peter's claim that providing energy in the right ways can strengthen institutions and make them more responsive to citizens. There could hardly be a more difficult place to demonstrate this than Afghanistan, but that is what the German agency GIZ and consulting firm Integration have done when building mini hydro systems in remote and mountainous Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. (For details of these and the other excellent winners see the Ashden website.)
There, lack of electricity has hampered development and added to community tensions (and anger at the government). The programme spent a long time working with local communities to ensure support for the mini-hydro schemes. The benefits to local people were two-fold: employment building and maintaining the systems and the electricity.
It is essential that each scheme has the support of all sections of the community and there are clear ways to settle disputes. For example, customers have to agree not to use excessive power and to balance use, so that power-hungry appliances are used in the daytime and not the evening, when demand is at its peak.
More than 27,000 local people were employed during the construction phase and the provision of electricity has led to a surge in small businesses. By March this year there were six mini-hydro schemes providing electricity to 63,000 people, 645 small businesses and 110 public institutions such as schools and health centres. More are under construction or consideration. One important agreement was that in exchange for electricity, poppy cultivation in those areas should stop, whilst the availability of other income has also meant that there is less need to grow poppy. As a result, poppy
cultivation in the areas served has, indeed, virtually ceased.
That is pretty impressive, I think. And there is enormous potential for further mini-hydro in Afghanistan, along with solar and wind, and indeed in other countries in the region.
Giant dams in Tajikstan
One has only to look further north, however, at Afghanistan's neighbour Tajikistan to see an example of how fantasies of gigantism continue to dominate the minds of the men (and it is usually men) at the Ministries. There, they want to build a giant dam at Rogun, rather than several smaller ones, and this has caused (or exacerbated) such tensions with downstream Uzbekistan that the Uzbeks cut off gas supplies for two weeks in April to Tajikistan. As Oxford Analytica reported earlier this month, the World Bank is
currently carrying out two studies on the feasibility of Rogun, which should be public in June. These will largely determine whether Rogun gets the large-scale funding it needs.
In the light of the tumult of debates swirling around as we head to Rio+20, it will be interesting to see which way the World Bank jumps and whether this might indicate a move away from backing big infrastructure and towards more flexible, diverse and poverty-focused forms of energy.