There are many factors which influence drought stress and response. Africa is projected to experience increasing climate hazards for the remainder of the 21st century – so how is hydropower generation going to be affected and how can it enhance the continent’s resilience to climate change?

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2020.
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Climate hazards are likely to pose a challenge to hydropower generation in Africa, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. However, resilient hydropower can play a key role in allowing Africa to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), support clean energy transitions, and adapt to climate change.

East Africa has been the primary focus for various drought studies in recent years. In 2016 in particular, the region was badly hit by drought, which impacted close to 16 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Africa needs to connect 20 million people to the electricity network every year from 2020 to 2030 – hydropower is a cost-effective means to meet the increased demand while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. In the IEA report, Climate Impacts on African Hydropower, the authors aim to enhance the climate resilience of African hydropower through a climate risk and impact assessment and by introducing potential resilience measures.

Hydropower accounts for 17% of the electricity generation in Africa on average. However, in places such as the DRC, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia — the share of hydropower is much higher – up to or exceeding 80%.

It is anticipated that the overall amount of hydropower generation will increase from the current level of 17% to more than 23% by 2040. This development is driven partly by ongoing efforts to reduce carbon emissions through the utilisation of clean energy and an overwhelming drive toward universal energy access in Africa.

…in east Africa it is predicted the region will experience a wetter climate and more frequent, heavy rainfall.

It is anticipated that, overall, the capacity factor for hydropower will decrease up to the end of the century. A decrease of about 3% between 2060 and 2099 is anticipated compared to the baseline period 2010 to 2019. The projected accumulative loss for the remainder of the 21st century is said to be 130TWh – equivalent to the current total annual generation output from all African hydropower plants.

However, country-specific data shows that while climate change will have significant impacts, the patterns may vary significantly by country. For example, the hydropower capacity factor in Morocco, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the DRC and Mozambique is projected to decline considerably, while the decrease would be offset by an increase in the hydropower capacity factor of the Nile basin countries, notably Egypt, Sudan and Kenya.

In southern Africa, it is anticipated that the region will experience a drier climate with more frequent incidences of low precipitation. In East Africa, it is predicted the region will experience a wetter climate and more frequent, heavy rainfall. How, therefore, will it be possible to protect hydropower facilities in the region if rainfall does, indeed, increase?

The above factors, and the potential expansion in the amount of hydropower used may increase a country’s exposure to climate hazards and risks to electricity systems. Because of the vastly different impacts, it is proposed that each country will require a tailored approach to mitigate or capitalise on the impacts. Those countries falling within the Nile basin could see anything from a 2% increase in hydro capacity up to as much as 7%.

However, there is no ‘one size fits all’ proposal and individual responses will need to take many factors into account. These include:

• Robustness: What is the ability of an energy system to withstand long-term and gradual changes in climate patterns and continue its operation?

Resourcefulness: Can the sector manage operations during immediate shocks such as extreme weather events such as floods?

Recovery: How easily can the system’s functions be restored after an interruption resulting from climate impacts?

Measures to increase resilience

Resilience-building measures to be undertaken should be underpinned by strong support by central governments, along with appropriate regulation and strategy. Utilities need to pay more attention to climate resilience considering criteria for ‘climate-resilient’ hydropower projects. These could be supported financially by government in collaboration with financial institutions – especially for the inclusion of climate resilience in the planning and design for future assets and modernisation.

Appropriate development of land around vulnerable catchment areas can also reduce the probability of serious damage from climate hazards. Furthermore, developing emergency response plans is vital to enable local authorities and utilities to enhance their resilience to extreme weather events.

These should be further enhanced by system hardening. For example, increasing reservoir capacity or dam heights where necessary, or redesigning slipways to manage erratic water flow patterns. For those areas which are anticipated to receive more rain, it is particularly important to consider the implications of overflow. For instance, strengthening or implementing flood fences, reinforcing banks or relocation of powerhouses to avoid areas that may be subject to flooding.

Barriers to implementation and suggestions

Lack of reliable data from which to draw conclusions

Access to information about climate and hydrology is in short supply across many African countries, making it hard for databased decisions to be made. This lack of insight makes it difficult to determine the most suitable way to improve climate resilience.

Governments can step in and provide technical support by commissioning research and making available quality data and information on climate change. It is also possible to support the development of resilient hydropower projects financially. These should be bolstered by policies, regulations and guidelines which encourage operators to focus on climate risks.

Incentives to invest

The initial investment cost for building with resilience in mind is often hard to justify when the impact of that investment is likely to be felt only years or decades later. This is a situation which can make decision makers hesitant to proceed, despite the benefits. In addressing some of these challenges, international financial institutions have started creating programmes to support investments in climate-resilient projects.

For example, the Climate Resilience Bond of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) launched in September 2019. The 5-year bond is said to be the first to address the issue of climate resilience financing. Part of this $700 million fund is allocated for investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and investments in climate-resilient business and commercial operations.

Unfavourable regulatory frameworks

Climate change is often not included in energy master plans, which may lead to the impression that it is not an important consideration. This can cause its impacts being overlooked in the planning, operation and maintenance of generation plant.

There are several programmes which can be used to support public and private entities in assessing climate change risks on energy systems and developing mitigation strategies. These include the Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide [International Hydropower Association], the US Climate Resilience Toolkit [United States] and the Climate Compass [Department of Environment and Energy, Australia].


There is a perception that there is a lack of capacity to understand or foresee the devastating impacts of climate variability and extreme weather events. It is feared this may prevent decisions being made in a timely fashion. The African Risk Capacity (ARC), made up of the African Risk Capacity Agency and the ARC Insurance Company Limited, was established to help African governments improve their planning, preparedness and responses to extreme weather. The programme aims to improve disaster risk management, training governments how to define a country’s risk profile and how to proceed with developing a contingency plan.

In conclusion

The level of uncertainty regarding the actual impacts of climate change and the subsequent implications on hydrology make it vital that countries take responsibility for their mitigation and resilience strategies. Working with experts from around the world to develop and assess such strategies is of the utmost importance, but ultimately, the responsibility needs to lie with each country, government and utility to consider not only current needs but to think ahead of the needs of the future. ESI


Three exciting days of live conference sessions, technical presentations, networking opportunities, and an exclusive Utility CEO Forum will form part of the upcoming Virtual Future Energy East Africa event from 1-3 September 2020. www.future-energy-eastafrica.com