We’re at an important juncture today—African leaders must create strategies that propel economic growth while conserving natural capital and biodiversity. Energy development offers a remarkable case. Less than 60 percent of the infrastructure required to meet the continent’s energy needs currently exists; billions of dollars of capital will have to be raised and mobilized across several dozen countries, each with its own goals and priorities. This need presents an enormous challenge—and an opportunity.
There are ways to combine the needs of people and nature, including in areas like sub-Saharan Africa that will see significant development. A significant portion of Africa’s growing energy needs can be met via low-carbon, renewable energy development. In fact, these African nations have the chance today, before energy development plans are complete, to ensure new energy infrastructure is largely renewable, planned at the system scale, and implemented in a way that serves communities while still protecting wildlife. Africa can show the rest of the world how to get energy development right.
Consider hydropower development on the continent. Hydropower represents the largest current source of low-carbon power in the world, and African nations have tapped less than 95 percent of their hydropower potential. But hydropower can also have significant impacts on freshwater ecosystems, disrupting some of the services they provide to communities and reducing freshwater fish populations, a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people.
The question is: How can we balance the need for low-carbon power with the preservation of intact rivers that people and nature both rely on? Planning and managing hydropower projects at the system scale—in the context of the entire river basin—can reduce these negative impacts and ensure that hydropower dams achieve their full potential contribution to a country’s strategic objectives for energy and water. System-scale planning can improve the efficiency of other water services besides power production and reduces the risks of negative environmental and social impacts—thus avoiding subsequent delays, cost overruns or even project cancellations. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is currently working with the governments of Gabon and Guinea to implement this approach, known as Hydropower by Design.