Hydropower in Sierra Leone - Power to the people

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In Sierra Leone, 80 % of people have no access to electricity. However, the country has a massive potential for generating hydropower. Some key questions to answer in this respect: Who will unlock this potential? What is the prospective output? And how can the local population benefit from hydropower generation as much as possible?

Witteveen+Bos conducted a feasibility study into small-scale hydropower generation at seven sites in Sierra Leone. This study showed that the power output could be maximised by building dams at selected sites. However, this would involve flood risks and loss of arable land, income from sand and gold extraction, and biodiversity. For that reason, it was decided to impose a maximum dam height in order to minimise these risks as much as possible. Project leader Marcel Wauben backs this decision: ‘Climate change has made a number of aspects highly unpredictable. Witteveen+Bos wants to avoid having to conclude later on that we created dangerous situations for people in villages along the river. The basic principle here is that wellbeing comes first and output comes second. The potential negative impact on earning power and biodiversity has also been in serious consideration. All this resulted in a maximum dam height delivering a cost-benefit ratio that justifies the long-term investment.’

In addition, Witteveen+Bos advised the client to install local electricity grids in the villages near the hydropower facilities, to ensure local residents can also benefit from the investment and are not simply left to witness how others use their river. Water management expert Herman Mondeel sees great potential for hydropower in Africa. ‘Witteveen+Bos is looking for alternative funding options to replicate feasibility studies, like the one in Sierra Leone, in other places. When several parties join forces to fund a study, such as public-sector bodies with developing aid money and funds that aim to invest in sustainable development goals, it help us get closer to making hydropower in Africa a reality. That means that for many Africans access to electricity will become a realistic prospect.’

Elisabeth Ruijgrok, an expert in socially responsible design at Witteveen+Bos, about applying the principle: ‘Adjusting the dam height will limit the damage, which I see as a behavioural measure on top of the technical measure of the dam itself. Installing a local electricity grid is a technical measure, implemented with a social intention – a wonderful way to enhance a project’s value. The best thing would be if we could implement a proper socio-economic measure, for instance by calculating a price per cubic metre of river water. In that scenario, not only would villagers pay an amount per kilowatt hour, but the electricity producer would also pay an amount per cubic metre of water to villagers along the river to ensure they receive part of the benefit too. That will change the relationship between the different stakeholders. That’s the kind of measures we have in mind when we use the ‘Socially Responsible Design’ principle.’