Zambian households
Source: Raul Petri; unsplash.

It is fairly uncontroversial to say that Africa needs electricity. The policy generally adopted is therefore to build new power stations as fast as possible given limited resources; resources that often do not encompass meaningful community involvement or justice considerations, writes Ruth Krüger, in this opinion piece.

Africa is home to all of the countries that in 2014 had a level of electricity access below 20%, according to World Bank data. [1]

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

In fact, of the 41 countries where electricity access was below 50%, only seven were not in Africa. While this is improving, and 1 billion people are projected to gain electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2040, rapid population growth will likely mean that 530 million people will still be without electricity access, according to the World Bank State of Electricity Access Report in 2017. [2]

Major gaps in electricity access are widened by rapid population growth, and there are significant problems given the close relationship between electricity and human rights. However, a failure to consider energy justice may create significant challenges to energy projects, particularly regarding their sustainability.

This great energy need commonly co-exists with very real limits in resources. For example, in the DRC, external funding must be sought for each maintenance operation that is necessary for the Inga hydropower dams. [3]

In this context, the temptation is to build new energy projects as fast as possible, without expending resources on stakeholder involvement processes. However, such an approach is likely to foster community resistance, as is being seen in Brazil. [4]

This country saw its biggest increase in hydropower development under a military dictatorship, but the lack of community involvement is causing social unrest today, threatening the energy projects themselves.

The theory of energy justice may be used as an analytical tool to avoid challenges such as these and to create sustainable energy projects. In essence, energy justice is about applying justice theory to energy projects. It is a lens that is composed of distributional, recognition and procedural aspects, which together allow for justice challenges to be located and addressed. This is the “triumvirate of tenets” which was developed by Darren McCauley et al. [5]

Distributional justice

Distributional justice considers the way in which positive and negative impacts of an energy project are distributed. This was the first issue identified by environmental justice advocates in the US in the 1970s, who recognised that the pollution from power stations and mines is not equitably distributed. [6]

It was shown that environmental harm is more likely to affect poorer people, who may have to live near power stations, in addition to predicting levels of hazardous waste in an area based on its economic position.

Initially, distributional justice was a tool to identify social and economic discrimination surrounding energy projects.

Today, the concept might be usefully applied to coal-fired power stations in South Africa, for example. The Centre for Environmental Rights reported on 15 March 2018 that State-owned power utility Eskom is applying to postpone compliance with air quality standards at its Tutuka power station. This is despite the established link between power station emissions and serious health problems in the surrounding community.

Beyond this, the concept of distributional justice can be stretched further, to demonstrate injustices in how the benefits from an energy project are distributed. This is particularly relevant in the postcolonial context of many African countries, where benefits may either be funnelled to historical elites or sent overseas through neo-colonial economic structures.

A useful example is the DRC’s Inga hydropower dams, which were analysed in terms of energy justice in a research project in 2017. In this project, most energy company employees are not local, while there is a sprawling settlement of economic migrants near the dam who live in poverty.

Justice in energy projects may also be considered as recognition; however, even where stakeholders are involved in an energy project, this may not be equitable. Specifically, an academic paper by David Schlosberg suggested that there may be injustice in who is recognised as affected by a project, and also whether their way of life is recognised as affected. [7]

This dynamic was relevant in the energy justice analysis of the Inga dams, as only people with recognised traditional land rights are included in stakeholder involvement processes, although the affected community is far broader than this. This is a failure to recognise who is affected. Further, local fishers complain of perturbations in sediment levels, which affect their fishing, but this has not been taken seriously by the energy company. This is a failure to recognise impact on the way of life of local people.

The final consideration in an energy justice analysis is procedural justice. This is a question of inclusion in the procedures surrounding an energy project in a manner which is fair and meaningful.

Mechanisms for inclusion

In a paper by Kirsten Jenkins et al., three mechanisms for inclusion are suggested: local knowledge mobilisation, greater knowledge disclosure, and institutional representation. This component of energy justice may be particularly important in energy projects that bridge country borders, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This project aims to tap into the Nile River hydropower facility and may affect downstream countries such as Sudan and Egypt. There is a clear necessity for the crafting of cross-boundary procedures that are fair and inclusive.

In this way, meaning can be given to the concept of energy justice by analysing an energy project in terms of distributional justice, justice as recognition, and procedural justice.

Jenkins et al. suggested that the order in which one uses these concepts is important. Distributional justice points to an imbalance in positive and negative impacts, on the face of it. This component helps to identify injustice.

Next, justice as recognition helps to interrogate the reasons for this injustice.

If people are not recognised, the harm that an energy project is causing them will not be recognised either. Such people are also less likely to receive benefits from the project, pre-, duringand post-commercial operation. Finally, procedural justice suggests a means for solving the injustice by creating fair and meaningful processes.

If justice considerations are neglected it is highly likely that affected communities will adopt animosity towards the projects and project owners – adding fuel to fire in a situation that many regions battle with, community buy-in. Such injustice is intrinsically problematic, and waters down the level of benefit from energy.

More than this, however, injustice is practically problematic. Local people who are threatened by an energy project could protest. They may wave placards and write to newspapers. They can engage in a little monkey-wrenching. Whatever form it takes, social unrest is not conducive to energy production and development, but energy justice is. Now is the time to join the energy justice conversation.

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

About the author

Ruth Krüger is an independent researcher working in sustainability science and energy justice. She is currently affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

1 WorldBank. (2017). Access to electricity (% of population). Retrieved from EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS

2 WorldBank (2017). State of Electricity Access Report (SEAR) 2017). Retrieved from topic/energy/publication/sear

3 Krüger, R. (2017). Watering down justice: energy justice in the Inga dams case in the DRC. (MSc Master’s thesis), Lund University, Lund. Retrieved from

4 Souza, A. N., & Jacobi, P. R. (2013). Hidrelétricas na Amazônia: entre uma nova esfera pública e a modernização ecológica. In W. C. Ribeiro (Ed.), Conflitos e cooperação pela água na América Latina (pp. 321-342 ). São Paulo: Annablume.

5 McCauley, D., Heffron , R., Stephan, H., & Jenkins , K. E. H. (2013). Advancing energy justice: the triumvirate of tenets and systems thinking International Energy Law Review, 32(3), 107-110.

6 Szasz, A. (1994). Ecopopulism : Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

7 Schlosberg, D. (2004). Reconceiving Environmental Justice: Global Movements And Political Theories. Environmental Politics, 13(3), 517-540. doi:10.1080/0964401042000229025