Let there be light

Ever since I first arrived in Freetown three months ago, the buzzword’s been Bumbuna, the hydroelectric project that the entire city seems to be pinning their hopes on. Soon, I was told, Freetown and surrounding areas would be bathed in 24-hour electricity. All through July there were excited murmurs that the project was finally complete. In a triumphant ceremony President Ernest Bai Koroma pushed a button and tested one turbine. It works, but still no power.

The Bumbuna Hydroelectric Project is a 1970s dream venture that was cut short by the country’s decade-long civil war. It’s a 50 megawatt water regulation and hydropower dam facility located on the Seli River near the town of Bumbuna, 200 kilometers northeast of Freetown. From 1997 it lay comatose until 2005 when the World Bank and the African Development Bank stepped in with a $91.8 million shot in the arm.

Stable electricity is crucial for development in Sierra Leone. According to a World Bank report only about five per cent of the population has access to power. This too, is unreliable and punctuated by frequent blackouts. At the moment in Freetown, electricity is produced at a fuel-powered station which is heavily dependent on gas imports. The station is in terrible condition and employees are often found selling stolen canisters of gas on the streets. Petrol is $5 a gallon and can run a home generator for only about five hours. Business ideas are handicapped by fuel prices. Only a few roads have street lights and children study at night by dim ‘made in China’ lanterns. In places like the central Sierra Leonean town of Makeni, non-functioning electric poles hang limply and may as well have been clotheslines. Residents depend on wood, charcoal or generators – for those that can afford it. Bumbuna is aimed at creating a reliable, affordable and renewable source of power. 

For as long as anyone can remember, Bumbuna has been touted as the answer to the energy crisis. Along the way progress has been roadblocked by corruption and mismanagement. But popular optimism around the project is staggering, even after two governments’ worth of excuses (both the ruling APC and their predecessors the SLPP campaigned around energy issues). First, people were told that the dam was 99 per cent complete and as soon as the dam was full we would have power. This was in April. Now the Information Minister, IB Kargbo, has promised that Bumbuna will be operational by the end of August. Th end of the year is probably a more realistic deadline. Some say the resettlement of people who lived under the high tension Bumbuna cables has slowed things down. Residents are being offered $400 and food and oil coupons to convince them to move. The list goes on.

If Bumbuna ever wraps up, will lives really be transformed? A fellow journalist says that it will not resolve the country’s poverty issues. Even with the reduced tariffs that the project promises, electricity will remain outside the reach of average Sierra Leoneans. In 2007 President Koroma aimed his development goals at power supply, agriculture and increase in production, all of which are intricately linked. With the country pinned at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, Bumbuna is not the end goal that many politicians paint it to be, but only the beginning.

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