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ENERGY-CAMEROON: Dam Project Questioned

Ngala Killian Chimtom

LOM-PANGAR, Cameroon, Aug 3 2009 (IPS) - Construction has begun on a new dam at the confluence of the Lom and Pangar rivers in Cameroon. The government is pushing the project as key to addressing an energy shortfall, allowing for economic growth; observers believe the plan may only increase the country’s vulnerability to drought.

Cameroon, which is heavily dependent on hydro-electric power, has recently suffered significant reductions in supply due to drought. Government hopes to use the Lom Pangar dam to regulate seasonal flows of water into the Sanaga River.

With a planned capacity of 7.250 billion cubic meters in a reservoir that will cover 610 square kilometers, the dam will be used to hold water back for release during dry the season to feed the Song-Lou Lou and Edea dams on the Sanaga River downstream.

“These two dams produce a total of 648 MW of electricity, but this production generally drops in the dry season. The Lom Pangar Dam will enable the two dams to produce an additional 170 MW of electricity without additional costs,” Celestin N’Donga, director general of the Electricity Development Corporation (EDC) told IPS.

The dam is expected to cost around 240 million dollars, with funding coming from a consortium including the French Agency for Development, The African Development Bank, IMF, and the Islamic Bank.

Flicking the development switch

Government is banking on the dam to jump-start Cameroon’s economy. Speaking at the formal launch of construction of the road from Deng Deng in May, the water and energy minister at the time, Luc Bernard Sindeu, said, “I can’t imagine Cameroon evolving into an emerging country by 2035 as planned, without (an) adequate energy supply.”

At the formal launch of construction of the road from Deng Deng on May 15, N’Donga told journalists, “This is one of the projects that will spark the third cycle of industrialisation in Cameroon.”

Cameroon’s industrialisation has long been hampered by inadequate power supply. Its first cycle of industrialisation, based on state–run enterprises ran into trouble in the 1980s when an excruciating economic crisis set in, prooked by plummeting prices of raw materials in the world market. By 1997 though, the industrial sector had recovered enough to contribute 27.8 percent of GDP.

One of the giants of this growth, the aluminum smelter ALUCAM is eyeing the Lom Pangar dam project with great expectation.

In June 2008, the Electricity Development Corporation (EDC) and Rio Tinto-Alcan, owners of ALUCAM, signed an agreement which lays out modalities for eventual water purchases by the aluminum company. The agreement will allow construction of another power-generating dam downstream at Nachtigal, and ALUCAM’s managing director, Titi Manyaka, was quite up-beat.

“This is a major development for ALUCAM. We have been longing to expand production from 90,000 tons per year to 300,000 tons. We couldn’t because of inadequate power supply.”

Acute power shortages have forced the aluminum smelter to scale down output by nearly 40 percent. According to Manyaka, ALUCAM needs 180 MW to operate at full capacity. Supply however dropped to 120 MW in 2009.

ALUCAM sources say production this year could drop to just 55,000 tons.

“This is why the Lom Pangar Dam is important to us,” Jacques Dubuc, spokesperson for Rio Tinto-Alcan operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told IPS during a recent visit to Cameroon.

“If ALUCAM suffers such production cuts, it is not good news for the company and its shareholders… it is particularly not good news for the Cameroon government which will also lose money in export taxes.”

ALUCAM currently represents seven percent of Cameroon’s industrial output, five percent of export earnings, and contributes three percent to the GDP – 106 million dollars – to the national budget.

Claudia Djoho says new factories are expected to sprout in southern Cameroon once the power supply is expanded: a cement factory is planned for Limbe, and several power-intensive mining projects such as the Mballam iron exploitation and another mining cobalt in Lomie.

The plan has its critics

But discordant voices have been raised against the general shout of praise. With ALUCAM planning to use most of the new power to treble aluminum production, it is argued that the energy generated from the dam will not be of benefit to the people of Cameroon.

AES SONEL, the electricity distribution company, currently supplies less than 53 thousand of Cameroon’s nearly 20 million people. Alucam uses up to a third of the country’s total energy output – and this at subsidised rates. ALUCAM pays just 0.8 CFA per KwH of electricity – less than one U.S. cent, and far below the ordinary Cameroonian who has to pay between 10 and 12 cents per KwH.

“Industry is desirable,” said Essoka Goumone, mayor of Belabo in whose jurisdiction the dam will be constructed. “But it seems like people are now being sacrificed on the altar of industrial expansion.”

He said that the indigenes suspect that they will continue to suffer from intermittent power cuts even after the dam becomes operational in 2012.

The region’s electricity presently comes from three aging thermal plants, which produce barely 10 MW of electricity. Sindeu said “a 24MW hydro plant will be constructed at the foot of the dam to cater for the electricity needs of local people”.

Terri Hathaway of International Rivers Network challenges the wisdom of constructing yet another dam along the Sanaga River, which already has other dams downstream that provide 95 percent of Cameroon’s electricity production.

She says that the heavy dependence by Cameroon on hydroelectric power (and generated from a single river system) puts Cameroon at great risk of economic disruption caused by droughts.

In 2007, low rainfall and drought resulted in the blackouts that provoked a wave of strike actions across the country. The unrest in Cameroon’s East Region led to the death of two students, mowed down as they went into violent confrontation with the forces of Law and Order.

Critics believe that it would be wiser for Cameroon to indulge in alternative sources of energy.

“If I were to advise the government, I would tell them to revert to renewable energy sources,” Gilbert Achiri of Renewable Energy Services Company (RESCO) told IPS on the phone from Douala.

“Cameroon has an abundance of sunlight. We need just a little political will to convert this light into energy and don’t forget that it can be accessible even to citizens in the most remote areas,” he said.

“We are going through a period of energy crisis. It’s not constructing large dams that will get us out of this crisis,” Thang adds. “We have a pilot project on solar energy.”

They also propose that higher management standards should have been stepped up to avoid energy loses. Thirty percent of Cameroon’s energy is lost in transmission.

But the main promoters of the dam think differently. “Cameroon has enormous hydro potentials – third highest in the world – which cannot be ignored,” Claudia Djoho, EDC communication officer told IPS, though she admits that EDC is planning to build several gas-fired plants as back-up energy sources.

“And don’t forget that water is also a source of renewable energy, unlike nuclear energy and fuel. Besides, hydro-electric dams also bring along economic benefits to the locals with activities like fishing and trade.”

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