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Race towards ruin?

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MFITI—Its consequences will be catastrophic

A race for optimal power generation is seeing Malawi look towards options that some believe will have devastating effects on the environment. As ALICK PONJE explores, a coal-fired power plant could be a perfect antithesis of sustainable development.

The picture is that of huge billows of smoke surging out of machinery grinding and combusting coal to generate electricity.

Hectares upon hectares have been cleared to pave way for a mega plant that is generating around 300 megawatts (MW) which should obviously turn around industrial projects aimed at revamping an ailing economy.

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That might be the case two or three years from now if the Kam’mwamba Coal-fired Power Plant Project sets off soon in Neno as envisioned by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining that has the policy direction in environmental conservation.

The pursuit for more sources of power for a country that is generating the lowest in the region makes both political and economic sense.

“But a coal-fired power plant should not be an option for Malawi. Its consequences will be catastrophic,” an environmental conservation activist, Godfrey Mfiti, warns.

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He reckons that while poor countries are allowed to make a certain amount of emissions, Malawi was supposed to be exploring sustainable sources of energy amid the devastating effects of climate change that the country has already felt.

While the Carbon Capture and Storage which is one of the most effective technologies for averting the worst aspects of climate change might be part of the Kam’mwamba Project, there still are fears of environmental ruin.

“At all cost, we must be working on minimising emissions because if we don’t, we will suffer in the long run. Climate change is real and we have seen its devastating effects,” Mfiti, who is also Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development, further cautions.

The Ministry of Natural Resources says the project ‘stalled’ due to funding challenges but that everything is in the pipeline now after Malawi signed 10 agreements with China last year.

The project is being financed by a loan from the Export and Import Bank of China to the tune of $667 million (approximately K486 billion at current exchange rates) with the Malawi Government required to source $104 million as commitment fee.

Now, a Special Purpose Vehicle dubbed Kam’mwamba Power Generation Company (KPGC), is in the process of implementing the project.

The company claims that the power plant is designed to mitigate acute shortage of electrical energy being faced by the country and that it will also mitigate against the effects of climate change.

But an environmenta l conservation expert, John Muyila, still feels the project is an investment towards devastation.

“The loan was supposed to be obtained to finance sustainable energy projects. We are a poor country and it will not be easy to deal with the devastating effects of the emissions. I don’t think we will have the capacity to mitigate them,” Muyila explains.

On the other hand, he seems to hold with those who are arguing that for Malawi, the coal-fired power project is the readiest option as industries are collapsing, foreign investors are shunning the country and households continue to rely on unsustainable sources of energy.

“It is true that we have not invested in our energy sector for a long time. But while it may not take long to have a coal-fired power plant operational, still its effects must compel us to look for alternatives,” he says.

Th e Unit ed Nat i o n s Development Programme (UNDP) states that as the global population continues to rise so will the demand for cheap energy.

“A global economy reliant on fossil fuels and the increase of greenhouse gas emissions is creating drastic changes to our climate system. This is impacting every continent.

“Efforts to encourage clean energy has resulted in more than 20 percent of global power being generated by renewable sources as of 2011. Still, one in seven people lack access to electricity, and as the demand continues to rise, there needs to be a sustainable increase in the production of renewable energy across the world,” the UN agency postulates.

It adds that universal access to affordable electricity by 2030 means investing in clean energy sources such as solar, wind and thermal.

And Muyila believes that a proper study can find these sources of energy feasible in some parts of the country.

“Even our traditional hydro-electric power system has not been explored to the fullest. What is important is considerable investment. We should not massage a kind of project that will ruin the environment in the long run,” he says.

A report on the project, published last year, indicated that lack of a feasibility study and the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) were among the issues that had stalled it.

But with authorities now confirming that implementation of the project has set off in earnest, activists still wonder whether fighting climate change is Malawi’s priority.

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