Hydropower for Juba

JUBA (South Sudan) – It’s the talk of the day, from the grocery shops lodged in shacks on the side of the road, to the poshest restaurants in town. Since the rainy season’s floods disrupted the Gulu-Nimule road, the main entry point to South Sudan from Uganda and the whole of East Africa, Juba has plunged back into the gloomy days of fuel (as well as other goods) shortages. And, here, no fuel means a whole city left in darkness.

Juba is the heart of the world’s youngest nation, but it is a heart that constantly misses its beats. It is a constantly developing metropolitan area, whose population varies according to different sources and estimates from 500,000 up to 1.2 million. A capital city with no city power available, where the hum of generators is ubiquitous, equally deafening and unsettling, and where air pollution – boosted by chaotic traffic on rough and dusty roads – is skyrocketing.

There are no power plants in South Sudan, the only exception being the oil fields in the North, where small crude oil power plants provide electricity to compounds and facilities that dot a flatland where trees are as scanty as brick buildings.

The White Nile crosses the country from South to North, a silvery and shimmering backbone to the entire nation; sun shines on tukuls and forests even during the rainy season. And indeed, the use of solar panels is on the increase, among those who can afford to invest some thousands of U.S. dollars. But hydropower is not a reality in South Sudan. Here, the overwhelming majority of houses, offices, restaurants, and hotels keep relying on the spluttering engines of small generators. This despite the existence of a city power network, sustained by eight massive generators owned by South Sudan Electricity Corporation, with a capacity of up to 11 MW, in a city whose total demand for power was estimated, in 2012, to already be between15 and 20 MW.

The generators stand unperturbed on the Nile’s shores, silent and (mostly) inactive. Recently, the Minister of Electricity and Dams, Jemma Nunu Kumba, confirmed to the media that “we have eight generators, of which seven are down due to lack of spare parts.” At night, Juba is a dark spot on the African plateau.

Lack of electricity hampers daily life in Juba. It is not uncommon to see people gathering around the fence of big compounds, where security issues keep generators running 24/7, in order to read under neon lights. Power shortages affect hospitals and clinics. The University of Juba is forced to switch off its generators at 5 p.m.

“In the dissection room,” says Yohannis Riak, a 27-year-old student of medicine, “we have to treat the corpses with formaldheyde, and store them in a small pool filled with water.”

Lack of electricity hinders business too. Potential investors agree on it being the main challenge to face when opening an activity in the capital of South Sudan. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business database, connection to utilities accounts for up to 94 percent of the total cost for a construction business to open a new warehouse in the country, with electricity connection alone representing 62 percent of the expenses. Very few goods are produced locally, and generators are definitely not among them.

Accommodation prices in town easily rival those of Manhattan or Zurich: 24/7 electric power is a luxury very few people can afford, and this contributes to the creation of an overinflated housing market.

The complex power scenario in Juba prompted the intervention of one of the historic players in the South Sudanese scene: the Norwegian government, through its Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund). Their goal: to realize the first hydroelectric plant in the new nation, located at the Fula Rapids on the White Nile, near the Ugandan border.

The site was identified nearly 30 years ago, according to officials at the Norwegian Embassy in Juba. A feasibility study confirmed a hydropower installation could serve Juba with power, and Norway proposed the construction of a 42 MW plant.

A natural canal in the river would be extended to a length of 950 metres, with a height difference of 10 metres. No dam would affect the Nile flow: “The environmental impact is relatively low,” confirmed the Norwegian officials in an email response to Urban Africa. Depending on the growth of the population and the economy, the Fula Rapids hydropower plant should serve all of Juba up to the mid-2020s.

The plant is envisaged as a public-private partnership, whose costs will be shared by various investors. The project is being developed by Aldwych International (UK) together with Norfund, and already has a registered project company. The public utility, South Sudan Electricity Corporation (SSEC), will be involved together with these other two investors. The Government of Norway is also considering a grant of approximately $50 million in order to lower the cost of electricity further.

A 151 km transmission line, from Fula Rapids to Juba, will also be constructed, with a financial investment by SSEC. It will take between two and three years to complete the project, whose development should start in the first half of 2014.

“This is the first large scale investment in South Sudan’s power sector, so clearly there are some challenges,” admit officials at the Norwegian Embassy. A “challenge of special importance is to increase the capacity of the South Sudan Electricity Corporation to enable it to receive the power and resell it to the consumers in a commercial way. However, the commitment by the Government of South Sudan has been tremendous and this will make the project happen.”

Hopefully, by 2016 Juba’s nights will be much brighter. For all its residents.

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