Environmentalists celebrate a setback in Africa’s fight against ill health and malnutrition
Who has the biggest electricity bill in Scotland? The answer is, somewhat surprisingly, Scottish Water. While we think of manufacturing industry as having the biggest demand for power, it turns out that pumping water from one place to another, and through the different treatment processes that modern standards make necessary, is just as costly in energy terms.
We take our abundant supplies of clean water for granted, and it’s easy to forget what life was like before the Victorians started building the infrastructure that so transformed public health in this country. Many people think that a supply of potable water is all that matters, but that would be to make a serious mistake. It’s about sewerage and storm drains too, of course, but also about hygiene. Washing hands and washing food are an important way of preventing the transmission of disease, so abundance of supply is almost as important as potability. Hence Scottish Water’s big power bill.
Most of the infections that cause diarrhoea can be washed away, which is one of the reasons malnutrition and stunting are a thing of the past in the western world. But in the least developed countries they are not so lucky. Take Senegal for example. In rural parts of the country, nearly half the population has no water supply, and only a third have basic sanitation in the form of septic tanks. Almost nobody has mains sewerage.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, diarrhoea is a major cause of mortality in Senegalese children. And the most common cause of diarrhoea in Senegal is rotavirus, which is commonly transmitted by people who have not washed their hands properly. Provision of water in abundance will therefore save lives on a large scale.
This means that Senegal desperately needs improvements to its water infrastructure, and lots of electricity to power them. Unfortunately, electricity is something that the country does not have in great quantity either, and what it does have comes from ageing plant, much of it powered by diesel. Power cuts are frequent. Once you have considered the possibility of delivering electricity on the scale required with renewables, and rejected it as entirely ludicrous, you are left with fossil fuels.
It is depressing then to read of the cancellation of the project to build a coal-fired power station at Bargny, near Dakar. This would have been tiny compared to power stations in this country, but would have increased generating capacity in Senegal by something like a fifth. It would literally have been a life saver.
Even more depressing, therefore, is the fact that the cancellation has been celebrated – yes, celebrated – by environmentalists. The American group 350.org called it a ‘huge, huge win’. This is, on the face of it, inhuman.
Mercifully for the Senegalese, it appears that the story is ill-founded, and it seems to have had its origin in a press release initiated by 350.org itself. French journalists have pointed out that it has been known for two years that the plans for Bargny were to be changed. Massive discoveries of natural gas in Senegalese waters mean that imported coal is much less appealing as a future source of energy: gas turbines are cheaper to run and generate less by way of emissions. Unsurprisingly, the Senegalese government has decided to dump coal, and switching the fuel source for Bargny was therefore just the first step in a new ‘dash for gas’.
The prospects for a happy outcome, and the reduction of child mortality in Senegal, are therefore good, at least in the slightly longer term. It will be great for the Senegalese and should be celebrated by everyone.
Environmentalists, of course, will hate it.