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Water and Power in Uganda
This is the second of three blog posts from Sherwood’s Michael Thornton, currently based in Uganda.
Ogamba ki! This weekend I visited Jinja, home to the largest power production facility in Uganda, the Nalubaale and Kiira hydro electric plants. I was able to get a decent picture of the dam this year (below); last year I was stopped by AK-47 wielding guards very angry about my camera. The reason they were so angry is that the twin dams presently produce over 60% of the nation’s electrical power and interruption of either would be devastating. The remainder is produced from an assortment of smaller thermal and hydro plants, none larger than 50 MW.
Power is used in Uganda for the usual assortment of things, though at a much less intensive level than we in the US are used to. In wealthier areas it’s common to have lights, refrigerators, computers and televisions but in most of the country there is no power except at central points. Facilities are then limited to light bulbs, basic refrigeration, cell charging and other basic technology. While power is not ubiquitous, cell phones seem to be. A report in 2008 stated that Uganda is the first African country in which there are more cell phones than fixed telephones. In 2008, it was reported that 39% of the population owned cell phones and that by 2014 it is estimated that cell phone penetration in Uganda will reach 70%. Kiosks such as the one pictured here charge cell phones for a fee.
Uganda is a well watered country in most regions and suffers, more than anything, from lack of infrastructure and development. Although 13% of Ugarda is covered in wetlands, lack of national conservation laws have resulted in a decline in biodiversity in recent years. Most villages, such as the one I am working in, have pit latrines and open ponds or shallow wells for their wastewater and water facilities. The country receives ample rain, having two wet seasons and two dry seasons about three months long each. Water is generally available regionally, though often undeveloped making it far or unclean. According to a UNESCO report in 2003, only 59% of the rural population had access to clean, safe drinking water. National urban water coverage is up to 65%, up from 54% in 2000.
Originating at Lake Victoria to the south east, the Nile River feeds much of Uganda and, as noted above, provides the vast majority of its power. During times of low rainfall, which Uganda has been experiencing more and more due to climate change, the water level in Lake Victoria falls and with it the output of the main power stations. As a result and especially when compounded with poor general infrastructure, rolling blackouts are common. While I was here last summer many parts of the capital city received power every other day.
Looking forward, there are many new power stations planned, most of them relying on the flow of the Nile. Due to be completed in the next year, the 250 MW Bujagali Hydro Power Station will drastically improve national production. It comes at the cost of the Bujagali falls, a culturally important land mark and ecosystem and center of some of the best whitewater rafting in the world. Many in Uganda have protested this station, bringin up issues ranging from an unfair bidding process, to concerns that the natural ecosystem will be destroyed, to questions about how climate change-induced drought make reliance upon hydropower unwise, but it will be completed soon regardless.
Climate change is happening now in Uganda. I talked with some farmers who have said they don’t know when the traditional wet and dry seasons will occur any more. Some are planting now, some are harvesting. Mid-august, typically a wet time in Ddegeya has been bone dry with only a few sprinkles barely reaching the ground for the last 3 weeks. Today I watched as a landowner cluck clucked a crop of coffee ruined due to lack of rain. Equally challenging is the country’s rocketing population growth. With a present population of 34 million in an area smaller than Oregon, it is already a tight place to survive on subsistence farming. Hills far steeper than seem possible are home to farms and houses. With the world’s second highest population growth rate of 3.6% per year (over 50% of the population is under age 15 and average births per mother are over 6) and a rising level of consumption and environmental impact, Uganda has a daunting infrastructure and resource challenge ahead. Reports have stated that rapid population growth coupled with climate change (resulting in droughts and flash flooding), water borne disease and poor health infrastructure are some of Uganda’s main current issues.
Next week I’ll take a look at the projects EWB MIT is working on to address some of the challenges above in our village and provide a brief outlook on Uganda’s future from my perspective. Send questions as you have them!
All About the Three Gorges Dam
Reports of recent flooding in southern China have claimed the torrential rains to be the most severe in scope and damage since 1998. As of July 28th, an estimated 2.9 million people have been relocated, and economic damages have climbed to $3.354 billion. In addition to reports of on the natural catastrophe however, the China Daily, China Post, and Reuters have also observed that the Three Gorges Dam is facing its biggest challenge to date: withstanding and ameliorating the flood waters in the region. Officials are currently expressing concern that a number of dikes in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangze River are susceptible to damage from the accumulating water pressure. Three Gorges Dam engineers have opened three sluice gates to “discharge some 32,000 cubic meters of water per second and another sluice gate to release floating objects.”
The Three Gorges Dam was originally proposed for construction in 1919 by Sun Yatsen as a major source of hydroelectric power on the Yangtze River. Nearly 90 years later, in 2008, the dam was completed, setting world records as the largest electricity-generating plant of any kind. In addition to this massive engineering feat however, has come much controversy. In 2007, the New York Times reported that the project set records not only as the largest power plant in the world, it is also the largest dam, the largest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel ever and has even caused the one history’s largest human resettlement programs. With the official announcement to construct the dam in 1992, came an onslaught of “unusually visible domestic opposition”. Concerns ranged from the fully scientific to the social problems that the construction of such a large structure would create.
Below I have provided a brief summary of some of the concerns people have raised against the dam: (in no particular order)
1. Accumulation of concentrated regional water pollution from surrounding areas
The Three Gorges Dam serves as a giant reservoir that stores water flowing from water basins in southern China, which are infamous for being heavily polluted with municipal and industrial waste, in addition to huge amounts of agricultural fertilizers. In 2001, the People’s Daily reported on the measures being taken to improve waste management strageties by the Central Government in the dam areas and upper reaches of the Yangtze. However, in 2004, the same newspaper released another report stating that many implementations had still not taken effect, including the closing of many small industrial enterprises that grossly surpass wastewater effluent standards, such as the paper and leather industries. The report stated that of 242 large-scale enterprises in the area, 227 also failed to meet standards.
2. Ecological disruption for hundreds of native species
Damming the Yangtze River inevitably causes disruption for the hundreds of species that are native to the area, including the endangered Baiji River Dolphin whose only native habitat is the Yangtze River. Because of the dam, fish species are unable to reach their upstream spawning habitats, affecting their natural biological cycles. Other affected species include the Chinese Sturgeon, Chinese Tiger, Chinese Alligator, Siberian Crane, and the Giant Panda. Chinese law currently protects a total of forty-seven rare or endangered species in the Three Gorges Dam area.
3. Dislocation of millions of local residents and loss of cultural artifacts
A result of the flooding of 632 square kilometers of land (bringing the total surface area of the dam to 1,045 square kilometers), 1.3 million local residents had to be relocated to other areas. There have been many reports on the psychological, emotional, and economic effects of displaced residents because of the Three Gorges Dam construction. As the water level of the dam rose over 600 feet, entire villages, towns, and even cities were left completely underwater. Although the central government provided allocations for the involuntarily displaced residents, many had trouble in the transition from rural to urban life, many lost their livelihoods with their farmlands, and many suffered from psychological trauma as their ancestral homes of generations were lost. In many cases, fertile farmlands were swallowed up by the rising waters, and reapportioned land distributed to local farmers was by far inferior and difficult to cultivate than the original land. An estimated 1,300 archaeological sites are also reported to have been lost in the flooded area.
The Yangtze River (undammed) carries about 680 million tons of silt to the East China Sea every year, making it one of the most heavily silted rivers in the world. It is estimated that each year 0.5 billion tons of silt will be trapped behind the dam, decreasing the effectiveness of the dam to prevent flood control and increasing the height of riverbeds, and the possibility of secondary pollution from the release of harmful chemicals that may be carried with river silt.
5. Increased landslides and earthquakes
From the increased weight over the flooded area from the dammed water and accumulated silt.
6. The making of an obvious terrorist target
All these negative aspects and concerns over the dam however have not made it a complete failure though. The dam, the largest clean-energy power plant in the world, is a symbol and a realization of China’s commitment to reducing its dependence on coal. A shift from coal reliance will not only benefit China’s environment, it will also improve air quality and reduce acid rain in neighboring Japan and Korea. As China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gasses, and is expecting to have even greater energy needs as it continues to develop its economy, “going green” for fuel requirements is perhaps enough to outweigh the negative consequences of the dam.
In addition, the Three Gorges Dam has a positive effect on the navigation of the Yangtze River. Trade along the river has been reported to account for 80 percent of China’s inland shipping. Elevated water levels not only make it possible for larger ships to safely travel up and downstream, the dam also lessens the phenomenon of whirlpools that influence smaller local shipping companies. One local is quoted, saying: “The whirlpools were big back then. If your boat got caught in one, it would spin you around. Now the river’s easy to navigate. Honestly, a 15-year-old kid could steer a boat up it, no problem. There are no big waves anymore.”
The final major point that proponents of the Three Gorges Dam cite is that it will be able to ameliorate the effects of flooding of the area surrounding the Yangtze River. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, records show that in 2,300 years, there have been over 214 major floods in the area, averaging one every ten years. Almost like clockwork, the floods of 2010 are being called the worst since 1998, but now the difference is the presence of the largest dam ever built by man. The Three Gorges Dam has been estimated to be able to protect 15 million people and 1.5 acres of farmland. During flooding seasons, the water in the dam is regulated to a lower level to help receive floodwater from the surrounding areas. During dry season, the dam can also help mitigate the effects of drought upstream. Facing the current flood conditions of southern China, authorities are regulating the water levels in the dam to lessen the impact of the flood downstream.
Some relevant articles debating the strengths and weaknesses of the Three Gorges Dam include:
- Burton, Sandra. “Taming the river wild.” Time 19 Dec 1994.
- “Editorials: ASIA NEEDS DAMS: And yes-there are ways to minimize ecological damage” Asiaweek 15 July 1996.
Rainwater Utilization in China—History and Current Issues
A Google search on rainwater utilization in Beijing mostly yields articles about the rainwater collection and purification systems that were built into Olympic venues the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Indeed, such facilities demonstrated China’s increasing realization of its water scarcity issues and its recognition of a huge and largely unused resource: rainwater. However, what has been largely unseen in the English media is the development of the overall picture of rainwater utilization in China. What is the current state of the art? What has the history of the practice of rainwater utilization in China been up to now and what is its potential for the future?
Not only is China a water scarce country, water scarcity may be a significant factor in limiting the country’s development in the future. According to a 2009 report, of China’s 669 cities, 400 do not have enough water to meet distribution demands. In Beijing, the amount of water availablity per capita is less than 300 cubic meters, which is about one-thirtieth of the global amount. In many areas, especially in northern China (including Beijing), groundwater is overextracted in order to meet water demands, causing permanent ground subsidence damages. In order to reroute more abundant resources from the south to northern China, other large scale water diversion projects have been planned, but not without controversy . There have also been more and more demand-side campaigns to encourage residents, developers and industry to reduce water usage. In the eyes of some researchers and policy-makers however, one very obvious source of water has not been utilized to its full capacity: rainwater.
According to rough calculations, if Beijing municipality covers an area of 770 hectares and the annual rainfall is 630 mm, then the amount of rainwater the city receives each year is about 485 million cubic meters of water. If Tianjin covers an area of 640 hectares, and its annual rainfall is 600 mm, then it receives 276 million cubic meters of water each year. Similar calculations yield that Jinan, Shandong Province would receive about 80 million cubic meters of rainwater annually. If a significant portion of this largely unused resource could be collected, we can see that its impact on water scarcity in northern Chinese cities could be a very important resource.
There are two types of utilization methods for rainwater. One is to actively create sites where permeable facilities replace impermeable pavements (for examples, large parking lots or public squares), so that rainwater can slowly infiltrate into the underlying aquifers, recharging the water levels. The other kind is what we think of as active rainwater harvesting. These facilities may be located on rooftops or built into buildings. The water is collected and stored and or treated for landscaping, waterscaping, toilet flushing, or industrial cooling or rinsing usages. To a certain extent, both active and passive rainwater harvesting techniques have been implemented in China.
Rainwater utilization first began to be explored as a resource possibility in the 1980’s. At that time, certain local governments began to notice their water scarcity problems and installed rainwater collection systems on buildings. However, because at that time such facilities did not have the necessary accompanying treatment or reuse systems, their effect was not practical. In the 1990’s, the Beijing Water Conservancy Office (Now the Beijing Municipal Water Conservancy Bureau ) headed up two rainwater research projects—“Research on Beijing Municipality Urban Rainwater Utilization Technologies and Rainwater Infiltration Expansion” and “Beijing Municipality Urban Buildings’ Increased Water Collection Measures Research”. These two research projects reflected the two branches of rainwater utilization and the results of the research helped propel advances in the efficiency lacking in previous attempts at rainwater utilization. The research included not only technological research, but economic, urban planning and policy analysis. By 1998, with funding from the Beijing Municipal Government, over 20 rainwater utilization projects were completed.
In the year 2000, The Beijing Water Conservancy Bureau launched a joint project with Essen University (Germany) to build 6 demonstrative projects under the title “Urban Rain Flood Control and Utilization”. The projects were carried out in several distinct representative areas, converting paved areas into more porous surfaces (for groundwater infiltration) and installing catchment facilities to collect water (for car washing, toilet flushing and landscape use). The results of the project indicated that although the rainwater could be successfully reused for other purposes, when the economic factors of installing active facilities (as opposed to the passive infiltration facilities) were taken into accout, the outcomes were not very practical. Because Beijing receives little rainfall for about half of the year, the active facilities laid unused for too much time for such a plan to be considered for widespread use. Also in the year 2000, for the first time, the Beijing Municipal government passed a law stipulating that in residential communities, water for fountains and waterscapes must be supplied with either reclaimed water or with rainwater to decrease the strain on the potable water supply.
In 2001, China’s State Council passed a document called “The Beginning of the 21st Century Capital Water Resources Sustainable Utilization Plan” (21世纪初期首都水资源可持续利用规划), which states that in Beijing, rain water utilization should be an important measure to reduce the severity of water scarcity problems in the city. In 2003, The Beijing Municipality Planning Bureau and the Beijing Water Authority jointly passed an interim provision that all new construction, renovation, or expansion projects must go through rainwater engineering facilities design and construction. In 2004, the Standing Committee of the Beijing People’s Congress passed a law encouraging individuals and work units to utilize rain harvesting, infiltration, storage, and utilization strategies. In 2005, the fine for residential communities utilizing tap water for landscaping or waterscaping purposes was raised over 10 fold, showing the municipal government’s commitment to reclaimed wastewater and rainwater usage. Also in 2005, the Chinese Architectural Design Research Institute (中国建筑设计研究院) made a number of standardizations to rainwater utilization techniques.
Most recently, for the 2008 Olympics, the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest were all equipped with the most modern rain harvesting and treatment technologies. The Bird’s Nest rain harvesting area is 22 hectares, and it is able to collect 67,000 cubic meters of water annually and treat 2000 cubic meters of water daily. The Water Cube has a rooftop rain harvesting system that collects 10,500 cubic meters of water annually and it can treat enough water to support 100 Beijing residents’ water usage for one year.
An article published in Chinese in 2009 purports 5 major reasons that China still lags behind developed countries in its extent of rainwater utilization. Firstly, the technology lags behind developed countries. Secondly, rainwater utilization facilities are not adopted on a large scale. Thirdly, relatively little legislation exists for the appropriate treatment of rainwater (for example, urban runoff may enter the same channels as municipal wastewater and be treated as such in the urban water cycle). Fourthly, there is little standardization of rainwater harvesting or infiltration techniques. Lastly, the “level of industrialization” around issues of rainwater usage is low.
“Level of industrialization” refers to the development of corporations that work in services and technologies relating to rainwater utilization. Such corporations include those that provide collection and treatment services for rainwater, those that are able to market and sell filtered or treated rainwater effluent, corporations that provide technology support, maintenance and repair services, and corporations that actually sell equipment and technology for rainwater utilization designs.
However, the future looks bright for increased rates of rainwater usage in China. In an article by the Worldwatch Institute, experts have already seen trends in rainwater utilization systems design by real estate developers in Beijing, probably in response to recent legislature that requires residential areas to used reclaimed water or rainwater for waterscapes. Currently, many rainwater consulting projects are done by academic institutions such as universities, institutes or national academies. In the future as legislations become more defined and implemented on a national scale, there will probably be more room for development for private environmental consulting agencies who wish to enter the market.
The information in this article is a summary of information gathered from the following sources:
李俊奇,邝诺,刘洋,何建平.北京城市雨水利用政策剖析与启示 (Analysis and Inspiration of Rainwater Utilization Policies in Beijing). China Water and Wastewater. 2008
胡继连,葛颜祥,李春芳.城市雨水资源化利用政策研究 (Urban Rainwater Utilization Policy Research). Shandong Social Sciences. 2009
Water Scarcity in China—Addessing a problem of quantity, quality and management
Along with its rapid economic development and rising water demand in the past few decades, China has also been experiencing increasingly severe water scarcity. The overexploitation of both surface water and groundwater resources has led to serious, often irreversible, environmental consequences including salt water intrusion, ground subsidence, and ecological degradation. In addition, as we have seen in recent reports from the Southern China drought, pollution often makes already scarce water resources unfit for consumptions and even agricultural use. In recent years, China’s water demand and the growing concern of water scarcity has been covered by major media including the New York Times and the Economist.
Major concern is that coupled with the increasing urbanization, China’s farmlands will not be able to support the country’s population and unmet industrial demand for water will slow GDP growth. According to a 2002 World Bank report, since the 1980’s China has been experiencing water shortages of increasing severity in the areas of urban industry, domestic consumption and irrigated agriculture. In 2007, China’s Ministry of Water Resources reported that total national water deficit is estimated to be 30-40 billion cubic meters per year, and even more during drought years. Because of insufficient surface water resources, and because groundwater is generally less susceptible to contamination than surface water, groundwater extraction in many areas of China has become a main source of water resources. Unfortunately, because the recharge rates of such sources is also much slower (often deep aquifers have recharge rates are on the order of thousands of years), extraction rates have exceeded recharge rates. Depletion of groundwater resources has led to a continuous water table decline of 0.5 meters per year. It is reported that since 1960, water table declines have reached 40 meters for shallow groundwater and more than 40 meters for deep aquifers. The lowering of the water table and decline in soil pore pressure has led to irreversible ground subsidence. Areas around Beijing have been reported to land subsidences of up to several meters.
Surprisingly, China is estimated to rank fifth in the world for renewable water resources after Brazil, Russia, Canada and Indonesia. According to sources, the spatial and temporal distribution of renewable water resources and their inefficient management, pollution, as well as increasing per capita water demand are the major causes for severe water shortages in many areas. For example, northeastern China, which is known as China’s breadbasket, accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s farmland, but has only one-fifth of the country’s water resources. Also in northern China, 78% of surface water bodies in the Hai River Basin, to which Beijing and Tianjin, and Hebei Province belong, have been classified as “poor”, unfit for drinking and recreational use. Thus, the spatial distribution of water resources and poor water quality mutually exacerbate the situation in northern China.
In the past, water resource management in China has been predominantly supply-driven, meaning that few limitations were placed upon water usage and demand, and large engineering projects, such as the South-North Water Diversion Project, were implemented to meet those demands. This imbalance between supply and demand regulation led to an inefficient industrial and agricultural structure and water use. The Chinese Academy of Science reported in 2007 that China’s water use for industry-added value was 5-10 times the levels of developed countries and that industrial water recycling was only half of that of developed countries. Other reports indicated that only half the amount of water diverted by canals for irrigation actually delivered to the field and that only 40% of groundwater extracted for irrigation was actually used on crops.
In 2009 however, the New Scientist reported that Water Resources Minister Lei Chen that by 2020, China would cut the amount of water needed to produce each dollar of GDP by 60% by placing more restrictions on water demand. Such action would work towards China’s supply-driven strategy in battling water scarcity.
By improving regulation and management of water resources, China will be more in a better position to deal with the rising demand of water resources, a growing population, and rising GDP. However, such regulation must be supported by a holistic infrastructure institutional systems including legislature, governing bodies, monitoring, , non-profits, and academia.
Premier Wen’s visit to drought-stricken Guangxi Province
Happy Chinese New Year!
This year’s Spring Festival fell on February 14th, 2010. The Spring Festival, usually celebrated over a period of 15 days, is the most important holiday in Chinese culture and millions of people flock home to be with family. The eve of the Chinese New Year is customarily celebrated by reuniting with one’s family, eating dumplings or rice cakes, catching up with relatives, and setting off firecrackers. For millions of migrant workers all over China, the few days of the national holiday represent the only time to see one’s children and parents, sometimes even one’s own spouse, left back in rural villages.
For some however, the pilgrimage home also represents the stark difference between the distribution of resources in urban and rural areas. On February 13th, Xinhua News Agency reported on one region in particular, in southern China, that is currently experiencing severe drought. According to the report, after the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council’s Spring Festival Celebration, Premier Wen Jiabao immediately flew to the drought region to show support for the local residents of Hechi, in Guangxi Province.
Beginning in August of 2009 the region, which has been designated as a key recipient for central economic aid, has experienced high temperatures with little rainfall. The result has been the depletion of water storages, the interruption of local river flow and water scarcity for residents, agriculture and livestock. Compared with the previous year, per capita water availability dropped by 60%. In response, 385 water distribution stations were built to provide water to drought-stricken areas. Currently, water is distributed by car and each resident receives 20 kilograms of water per day. Local residents expressed to Premier Wen that for the New Year’s festivities, this amount was enough. In contrast, according to the American Water Works Association, the typical indoor daily water usage in a United States single-family home is 262.3 liters.
Upon leaving, Premier Wen stressed the importance of ensuring the distribution of clean, safe water not only for residential use, but also to ensure use for livestock, local agriculture, and production. The region’s primary agriculture products include rice, corn, silk, and soy. The premier also expressed that the long term solution to the region’s water scarcity problems had to be connected to the planning water system infrastructure including, reservoirs, irrigation systems, and water storage tanks.
Premier Wen’s New Year’s Eve visit to the drought-affected areas in Guangxi Province not only moved local residents, it also represented the national concern over water scarcity issues and the need to improve rural water infrastructure.
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