Uganda’s investment in dams hasn’t greatly improved electricity access-2013

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Uganda’s investment in dams hasn’t greatly improved electricity access-2013

The government and Uganda’s development partners like the World Bank have done well to promote and support rural electrification. So far, Uganda’s electricity access in rural areas is six per cent, though the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) had targeted a 10 per cent access for rural Uganda by 2012.

According to REA, currently there are more than 6,000 solar connections and 426 grid extension projects that have been implemented countrywide to support social and economic projects for rural transformation.

Rural electrification is important because it increases electricity access to rural areas, thus improving the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of people in rural areas.

An estimated 90 per cent of Ugandans live in rural areas with less than three per cent electricity access. There is, therefore, need for rural electrification to cover the biggest percentage of Uganda’s population.

However, it is uncertain whether the rural electrification programme is meeting its objectives of reducing inequalities in access to electricity and the associated opportunities for increased social welfare, education, health and income generation.

Access to electricity is vital for development for electricity serves as a catalyst, making the other pillars of development, education, modern healthcare, agriculture and other income-generating activities possible.

It has also been noted that for a society to move out of subsistence, conventional energy is a precondition. Therefore, access to electricity is not an end in itself but constitutes an important tool for development when we consider its linkages to agriculture, education and health.

In addition, the media recently reported that the West Nile Rural Electrification Company (WENRECo) wants to increase its power tariffs, a move that was opposed by the legislators from the region, citing irregular power supply. Under the Rural Energy Infrastructure, WENRECo signed a 20-year concession with the government to construct Nyagak hydropower dam and supply power to West Nile.

However, despite the fact that various dams have been commissioned across the country over the years, the increasing rate of power tariffs in Uganda is alarming. Despite heavy investments and reforms, Uganda’s power tariffs and power losses still remain one of the highest in Africa. Increments in tariffs should ideally be matched with improved service.

If in 1990, the population of Uganda was less than 17 million and today, we are 34 million, what does the rural electrification access increase from two per cent to six per cent in 12 years mean? How many people are connected to electricity and can use it profitably compared to those without access to power or those with access but cannot benefit from it because of poverty or ignorance?

According to the REA, in Oyam, Pader, Abim and other districts, connection costs have been subsidised and people can pay in installments. But we need to take into consideration that after installation, there are high tariffs to pay!

Are we, therefore, getting value for money from our investments in the rural electrification projects? What is the best way to make electricity relevant to the needs of the poor? What is the impact of tariff increase on the efforts of the poor to use electricity to overcome poverty?

If power consumers in urban areas are disconnected due to failure to pay bills, how do we expect those in rural areas to benefit from electricity? Is there any case study that can help us demonstrate how the poor can access and profitably use the current expensive electricity?

It’s at this critical time in the lifespan of the rural electrification programme (12 years) that these critical questions should be answered. More so, despite the good laws, the government has continued to implement good initiatives through closed processes with no input from the beneficiaries – the poor to whom such reforms were intended to benefit.

As a result, the rural electrification projects have continued to miss out on the much-needed popular support of the public, a key ingredient of success for any project aimed at providing the common good. In the end, the government and development partners have to continue providing unsustainable support such as subsidies to the private sector.

Remember, electricity is a right and Ugandans have a duty to demand accountability, accessibility and affordability. A well functioning governance mechanism such as effective implementation of laws, strong institutions, public participation, access to information and to justice would allow for better decision-making about the goals of rural electrification initiatives. It will also ensure that such goals are tailored to the needs of the rural poor who are the beneficiaries of such projects.

Doris Atwijukire

Africa Institute for Energy Governance.