Water makes electricity in Malawi

by | Mar 10, 2020

Dear followers, I’ve just come back from Malawi in southern Africa! 

I visited people living in villages in the south of Malawi, near the town of Mulanje. These villages have electricity thanks to a project by Practical Action and a local non-profit company called MEGA

Thanks to this project, people are lighting up their homes, powering schools and energising businesses. 

This is important you see, because more than half of the people who live in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have electricity. Most of them are forced to rely on charcoal or firewood to light and heat their homes and to cook food. Over the long term, this is bad for their health and also the environment, because wood used as fuel means less trees, which means more soil erosion (landslides, loss of seeds), less river water (because forests are important regulators of water) and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Gathering firewood also takes a lot of time and effort, which could be used in more productive ways, especially for busy mums and grandmas! 

Us polar bears don’t need electricity of course, but you humans really do! The demand for electricity is huge. Communities need it to power their businesses, schools and hospitals. Parents need it for earning an income, as well as cooking and refrigerating food. And, as daylight fades, children need it for safety and study. How would you do your evening homework without switching on the light?! 

Thanks to the Practical Action folks who kindly took me with them, in Malawi I learned how important access to energy really is for the development of remote communities. I experienced first-paw the difference that electricity is making to their lives. When communities get electricity, not only can they light up their homes, schools, health centres and businesses, they can also make machines work for them: one lady I met explained how electricity made it possible to use a saw mill to safely and quickly cut up timber to make furniture and building materials. Another lady showed me how she could use electricity to mill grain easily and quickly, rather than pound away by hand. 

I prefer fish myself, but this grain was produced thanks to an electric mill.
I prefer fish myself, but this grain was produced thanks to an electric mill.

Electricity also allows farmers to work a pump to irrigate their land, thereby enabling them to grow many kinds of crops more efficiently. These are just a few examples of how electricity  can help people break out of poverty, unlock their potential and become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

You’re probably wondering by now how it all works. How exactly are communities getting electricity, and why couldn’t they do it before? Well, it’s all explained here on Practical Action’s website, but basically the trick is to use rivers. The flow of water is an incredible source of energy. Rushing river water can get channelled into a special machine called a turbine, which is a bit like a windmill. The force of the water, just like that of the wind, makes wheels and other bits go round, which when all wired up properly, creates electricity. Water power, just like wind power, can also simply be transformed into mechanical power: when all the right little cogs, wheels and other connecting bits are set up, rushing water creates mechanical power, which can be used to make machines work.  

The source of electricity here is this river.

The water-power project set up near Mulanje is called a micro-hydro scheme. Contrary to a big, expensive and environmentally destructive dam, a micro-hydro scheme is small, locally managed, simple and cheap to set up and operate, and it makes no negative impact on the environment or anything else. Best of all, if things are set up and maintained properly, it lasts for decades, or at least, as long as the river flows (Practical Action makes sure the rivers that are used always have water). Practical Action and other local partners set it up with the community, who are the owners and operators. This is important, because if anyone other than the actual community were in control, what would happen when something breaks, or if there’s a problem of some sort? This is a great example of community water management. The community are in control: they built it, they maintain and repair it, and they benefit as a result.  All they needed to get started was the idea, some basic training and some of the starting materials. 

I think this micro-hydro scheme is great for so many reasons, mainly because it’s about addressing climate change. As you all know, that’s what I’m mainly all about. Part of dealing with climate change is learning to live with changes that we can no longer avoid. I talk quite a lot about this in my book, and on my global journey you remember I met many people and communities who are changing their ways in order to survive. This is called Climate Change Adaptation, and the project I visited in Malawi is a great example of how people living in difficult conditions and poverty (made worse by the effects of climate change in that part of the world – drought for example) are doing something about it. They are not only

Polo the Bear admires the MEGA project in Malawi

 learning to adapt by using a free, available and permanent source of energy (water) to generate electricity, but the technology they use – the micro-hydro plant – is actually also helping to mitigate climate change. This makes it one of the many climate change solutions people can implement. How so, you ask? Well think about it: before the micro-hydro project, the people in this area of Malawi depended on firewood and had to clear forested land to grow crops in places with natural water sources. Clearing forest means cutting down and killing trees: fewer living, carbon-soaking trees means all that carbon suddenly gets released into the atmosphere, and we all know what that means: more greenhouse gases warming up the planet! Though the level of threat caused by rural communities cutting down forest is certainly not an important cause of greenhouse gases on a planetary scale, it all adds up. 

Now, thanks to the micro-hydro project, the community can power up and irrigate their crops without touching the forest, so all that carbon stays safely locked away in the living trees, and the people also make sure the forest in the upper watershed remains intact, because they know that’s important to ensure a regular water supply to power their electricity generator! 

Polo the Bear and and example of water adaptation in Malawi

My friends at Practical Action explained that what I saw near Mulanje is only one of many places where this project works. You can find out more about it all by visiting the Practical Action website! 

I think I’ll put my paws up for a while now, all this travelling around is quite tiring, and I’m not sure the fish they gave me in Malawi agreed very well with me…

There’s a rumour though, that I may be visiting the volcanoes of Ecuador soon, so stay tuned and watch out for me on Twitter!


All photos courtesy of Practical Action.