Taking Charge of Local Energy


NAPOLEON is credited with saying: “Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.” When I imagine the Amaila Falls Hydro Project, I can’t help but think this applies closely. Often, commentators ascribe only evil intentions to the PPP/C, refusing to acknowledge the positive ideas that do sometimes stem from the party’s thinkers. But Amaila was mismanaged in many ways, and at the very least I believe we can all agree, corrupt allegations aside, that the hiring of the unqualified contractor “Fip” Motilall was a critical error.

I believe this project was the catalyst for a true national debate on sustainable energy, however, and that we are still in the midst of it several years later. Frequently, it reignites, as a new onshore natural gas pocket surfaces or environmental scrutiny of the offshore oil wells is raised. I want to advocate now not just for particular sustainable energy policies, but a national cultural approach to energy, highlighting the numerous strategic advantages Guyana has in this industry.

Even further, I want to emphasise that European experts commenting on Guyana’s hydroelectric capacity may not be in a very good position to offer advice, due to a long-standing historical bias. This bias manifests itself in multiple ways, sometimes bordering on the comical, but largely this is due to an adversarial approach to nature. One simple example of this is the cane toad — exported to European descendants in Australia to act as a natural predator for cane beetles, it neither ate cane beetles nor could be eaten by local species.

As a result, Australia is overrun with these pests, and while Guyanese are all too familiar with the simple solution of sprinkling salt on them to kill them, Australians have battled for years to eradicate them through brute force, going as far as shooting them one by one. That’s what happens when you only vaguely understand something that local people have lived with for centuries. To demonstrate what our national energy debate is missing by relying on such foreign experts, I will draw on an African leader, whose simple technology bested the might of England, Shaka Zulu.

According to historical accounts of the Zulu people, Shaka’s opponents in the early 1800s were used to fighting in which long spears were hurled at enemies and actual close combat kept to a minimum. Shaka recognised that not only did such spears hardly ever kill, his lightly armoured troops could quickly reach the enemy; as a result, close-quarter weapons were far more effective on Zimbabwe’s plains.

When confronted with British troops at the battle of Isandlwana, Zulus using Shaka’s methods simply ran through and around the invaders, weathering the slow gunshot fire and annihilating virtually the entire force. Single-shot guns with bayonets, standard army issue at this time, were no match for short Zulu stabbing spears. Ironically, Shaka was using pretty much the same battle tactics as the mighty Roman army, at precisely the time that guns were minimally effective.

I say all this to say that European methods, while they may seem state-of-the-art, can occasionally totally misunderstand local advantages. Of course, Europeans will recommend hydropower deep in the Amazon, requiring massive infrastructural investments, because they view nature as something to be subdued through brute force, rather than accommodation.

Instead, why haven’t we explored working with our many, many waterways to generate electricity through watermills? To carry this one step further, isn’t every single koker basically a dam at low tide? If we can gradually retrofit them to make use of water flowing out of the coastal plain, we can over a few years power the entire coast, as virtually every coastal village has it’s own canal and koker.

This is merely one raw idea, which certainly would require a feasibility study, but the point is that we need to be open to looking within for our energy solutions. Wind, solar and hydro-electricity generation are all possible locally, and if we are to meet our sustainable energy goals by 2025, we need to be creative. I imagine that critics of such inward reflection will say that the very builders of our sea defences were Europeans, the Dutch, renowned experts at keeping the ocean at bay. Shouldn’t we defer to their advice and be grateful we even have a coastal plain?

I completely agree we should be thankful, but that doesn’t mean the Dutch are the sole experts on living with water, as only after the floods of 1995, in which 200,000 Dutch citizens had to be evacuated, did they advocate for policies that worked with, rather than against, the flow of water (under their Room for the River policy).

Oil and natural gas remain the easiest sources of electricity generation and Minister Harmon’s proposal for a natural gas plant is certainly intuitive and potentially hugely beneficial. Even this week, reports surfaced that the natural gas at Diamond is of commercial quality and further study will surely now take place. But if we are to build a truly renewable future, we need to take a closer look at our local capabilities. Duly, the minister was able to successfully advocate for a solar farm when visiting Norway recently, and the funds that might have been wasted on Amaila will now be put to good use.

In the end, Shaka’s greatest contribution to the Zulu wasn’t the short spear, but encouraging his soldiers to make use of it, to develop a culture that would maximise its potency. So maybe decentralised koker-dams will solve our energy needs and then again, maybe not. The point, really, is just to encourage the search.