Thursday, 01 December 2011

Mini hydropower plants in Rwanda help reduce poverty, boost productive activities in rural communities

Got water? That means you can have energy. People have been harnessing the energy of moving water for centuries. In Ancient Greece and China, waterwheels were installed in rapidly flowing rivers to turn millstones and other equipment.
There is no single solution that can meet a society's future energy needs. The answer often lies in a bundle of diverse energy technologies that share a common thread: they do not deplete our natural resources or destroy our environment.

The so-called renewable energy technologies tap into natural cycles and systems, turning the ever-present energy of the nature around us into usable forms.

In Rwanda, where more than 60 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, efforts to reduce poverty and achieve greater economic growth are thwarted by the absence of electricity. Although the country has a potential of producing energy using hydro, geothermal, solar and methane gas resources, many barriers need to be overcome, such as poor technical capabilities, low income and lack of financial institutions in rural areas and weak private sector entrepreneurship.

Fatin Ali Mohamed, who for the last 5 years has been working in Rwanda on implementing small hydro solutions, says that most hydroelectric power plants rely on the same basic principles as a historical waterwheel, but they have a few high tech variations. Instead of producing energy which is used directly, as in the case of a waterwheel which causes a millstone to move, a hydroelectric power plant uses the force of the water to push a turbine which in turn powers a generator, creating electricity which can be used on-site or transported to other regions.

On 31 May, Fatin took part in the official opening of a small hydro in the country in Mutobo, in the Musanze District.

Hydroelectric power plants do not rely on seasonal flows of water. They are usually constructed inside dams, with the dam being used to retain water so that the flow of water through the turbines can be controlled. In periods of peak energy demand, the dam is opened to allow lots of water to flow, generating a great deal of electricity, and in periods of low demand, the dam is kept closed, saving the water for when it is needed. Some dams even have recovery and pumping systems, so water goes back into the reservoir after it has flowed through the dam, allowing it to be used again.

Once installed, a hydroelectric power plant does not generate any emissions or waste, making it vastly preferable to something like a coal-fired power plant. Not all countries, however, can afford this environmentally-friendly energy alternative. Many poor rural communities in the developing world do not have the financial possibility for a proper hydroelectric power plant, and an existing one is just too far away.

UNIDO works close with the Rwandan Government on mini hydropower construction, to gurantee clean, green and affordable access to energy.

The Organization estimates that only six per cent of the population have access to energy, but, with its geography, Rwanda is ideally suited for mini hydro plants and its water power can be used without environmental damage to provide affordable electricity in remote locations.

“The mini hydro plants are part of our energy target. When we count our target of 1000 megawatts of course we are counting from different sources and we see the mini-hydros as a solution specifically for rural areas that are a bit far from the normal national grid,” explains Coletha Ruhamya, Rwanda’s Minister for Energy and Water.

The local government plans to increase the access to energy in the country from what is now very low (about 6 per cent) to more than 50 per cent or 1000 megawatts by the year 2017.

Beneficiaries are schools, hospitals, small entrepreneurs and in one case, even the border services at Rwanda-Burundi border, that gets its electricity from one of the 4 mini hydro plants built by UNIDO. One of them is the Mutobo small hydroelectric plant in the Musanze District of Rwanda, which has been operational for two years now.

“If you compare the situation before with the situation now there is a big, big difference. The people are very happy that there is electricity and that they are benefiting from the Mutobo project. We are very happy,” says Winifrida Mpembyemungu, Mayor of Musanze District, Rwanda.

Small economic activity has already begun around the mini hydro plant, with people coming to the nearby villages of Kabere and Kitabura to take advantage of the better opportunities.

In the area surrounding the Mutobo power plant in the north of the country, a school with almost 1,700 children now has electricity, allowing the students to use computers for education.

“Energy is life. Electricity will drastically change and improve the life of the population of this settlement,” says Aurélien Agbénonci, UN Resident Coordinator, Rwanda.  

UNIDO’s mini hydropower plant initiative is widely seen as an entry point to bring other services, like agriculture, decentralization, education and healthcare services closer to those in need and by doing so improve the livelihoods of the population in the area.

So far about 2,000 households, small businesses, cottage industries, schools and health centres served with locally produced clean energy have benefited from the four mini hydropower pilot plants built by UNIDO in Rwanda.

For more information on the project, please contact project manager:
Fatin Ali Mohamed
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To see the video on the project go here: