Climate change deepens mines’ power woes

As Zambia’s energy-starved mines struggle with the shortfall between the country’s stalled power-generation capacity and its consistent economic growth, climate change appears to be “dealing a further blow to energy output”, states multidisciplinary consulting engineers and scientists SRK Consulting South Africa.

SRK Consulting principal mining engineer Boniface Mwila highlights the Zambian energy sector’s dependence on rainfall, with the country generating more than 90% of its power from hydroelectricity. “Zambia’s extensive use of hydropower makes its economy vulnerable during periods of extended drought,” says Mwila, noting that shifting rainfall patterns suggest that Zambia will see more droughts in future, similar to the one that is currently exacerbating its power crisis.

A survey of climate-related research by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre conducted last year found that, over the past 40 years, there was a slight reduction in Zambia’s annual precipitation. This trend went with increased variability in rainfall year-to-year and higher occurrences of extreme precipitation events, Mwila says, citing the research.

“Research from a few years earlier also found that mean annual rainfall over Zambia had decreased by an average rate of 1.9 mm a month, or 2.3% a decade since 1960,” he points out. While government plans for more generation capacity to rectify the supply-demand imbalance, Mwila believes drought may be a more frequent occurrence in the future. “The Red Cross study affirms that both floods and droughts have become more frequent and severe in recent decades,” he says.

Focus Area This highlights the importance of climate change as a focus in the future planning of the mining sector, Mwila stresses, averring that climate change will hamper industry. “It is already affecting the world of engineering and scientific studies. Across a range of disciplines – from geotechnical and water management to mine planning and environmental and social impact – there is an increasing demand for future-focused and innovative solutions.

“Conversely, there is a broader challenge for our industry: to ensure that stakeholders – primarily government and mining companies – cooperate more effectively in managing water and energy resources to build a business environment in which mining companies can make a reasonable return on their investments,” Mwila emphasises. He reiterates that mines in Zambia are currently operating in a highly constrained power supply environment, in which mines have been forced to cut back their consumption and even put projects on hold for lack of reliable electricity. “Consequently, long-term sustainability for the sector will only come when all players are pulling in the same direction,” Mwila concludes.

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