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Hydropower plans in eastern and southern Africa increase risk of concurrent climate-related electricity supply disruption


Hydropower comprises a significant and rapidly expanding proportion of electricity production in eastern and southern Africa. In both regions, hydropower is exposed to high levels of climate variability and regional climate linkages are strong, yet an understanding of spatial interdependences is lacking. Here we consider river basin configuration and define regions of coherent rainfall variability using cluster analysis to illustrate exposure to the risk of hydropower supply disruption of current (2015) and planned (2030) hydropower sites. Assuming completion of the dams planned, hydropower will become increasingly concentrated in the Nile (from 62% to 82% of total regional capacity) and Zambezi (from 73% to 85%) basins. By 2030, 70% and 59% of total hydropower capacity will be located in one cluster of rainfall variability in eastern and southern Africa, respectively, increasing the risk of concurrent climate-related electricity supply disruption in each region. Linking of nascent regional electricity sharing mechanisms could mitigate intraregional risk, although these mechanisms face considerable political and infrastructural challenges.

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We thank Neha Mittal for preparing and writing up the information on current and planned dams. This work was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant numbers NE/L008785/1 and NE/M020398/1) and the South Africa National Research Foundation (grant number 86975).

Author information

D.C. conceived the study and wrote the first draft, C.D. delineated the basin areas and overlaps with rainfall clusters and prepared corresponding figures, W.A.L. defined the rainfall clusters, T.O. carried out the rainfall-climate indicator analysis and wrote the related text, and all authors contributed to subsequent versions of the paper.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Declan Conway.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–12, Supplementary Tables 1–18, Supplementary Notes 1–6 and Supplementary References.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Existing and planned hydropower dams and their main river basins in eastern and southern Africa.
Fig. 2: Cluster areas of coherent rainfall variability in eastern Africa and southern Africa.
Fig. 3: Thirty-year sliding correlations between annual river flow series for four main hydropower generating rivers.