Should Malawi be celebrating a coal plant?

I recently read this feature article headline ” Malawi in Coal Fired Power Plant MOU with China Group: To Boost Economy”. The article quoted Minister of Finance and Economic Development, GoodallGondwe, stating that the objective of the current government is to ensure that Malawi would no longer be called poor by the time they leave office. I must confess I like the enthusiasm demonstrated in this statement. However, despite all the bells and whistles that accompanied the signing of the agreement, it still looked to me like a host of complexities covered up in a few niceties. Stay with me, I will explain why.

Marching protestors heading to coal mine- Photo by Tiwonge Kumwenda, Nyasa Times

At first glance one would immediately think, of course, why did we not think of this earlier. These people are geniuses. This is it, a panacea to our endless energy woes. Imagine, no more blackout nightmares, no more inadequate energy generation that negatively impacts on direct foreign investment, on top of that, Malawi’s dream of predominantly becoming a production based economy would no longer be a far fetched reality. Exciting news indeed, isn’t it?

Hold on a second, we are talking about burning coal right? Have we considered all the long-term effects of burning coal on the people living in the area earmarked for the plant? What about the surrounding environment? Have we considered the air, rivers and ground water? Where would villagers collect portable water from, if these sources get contaminated? Is this really worth it?

In medicine, a patient is recommended to take prescribed medication if its therapeutic effect outweighs the adverse effects. My point is, does the benefit of burning coal in Kam’mwambaoutweighs its negative effects on the inhabitants and their surrounding environment?  MwatisitikuwombelaMfitiMmanjapamanepa?Are we not celebrating an investment in a future public health disaster?

This comes on the heels of renewed calls for countries notorious for greenhouse gas emissions, such as China and the United States of America to systematically reduce their emissions.

United States is working at investing into alternative renewable energy initiatives and shutting down most of its coal power plants.  China has committed to follow suit. In fact, just recently, China signed a climate-change agreement with the United States.  According to the agreement, the two countries, who are also the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters promised to cap carbon pollution in 15 to 20 years.

What this means is that China agreed to halt the growth of its carbon emissions by around 2030. If it meets that commitment, the country’s CO2 pollution will probably plateau at around 11 billion metric tons. Conversely, United States agreed to emit between 26 percent and 28 percent less CO2 by 2025 than it did in 2005, when it produced 7.1 billion metric tons of carbon. This is major development and great news to the environment.

It is estimated that in 2010 alone china contributed over 22% of global green house emissions seconded by the U.S. at 15% whilst Malawi contributed zero percent. This is a great development for our country. It probably means Malawi has not done damage or polluted its environment yet.

The aforementioned percentages did not come without a cost to U.S. and China. These countries have paid and continue to pay dearly for using energy generated from coal over the years. With all financial resources at their disposal they are still struggling to contain the adverse effects resulting from coal burning.

Coal has negative impacts on public health. Clean air.org demystifies it this way. “Burning coal is a major source of fine particulate, acid rain, air toxics and greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Links have been made between exposure to pollution from coal-burning power plants and serious health impacts such as heart disease, respiratory diseases and different types of cancers. Not only that, burning coal also contaminates drinking water with mercury and other metals”.

Does Malawi have a plan for how it’s going to dispose of hazardous coal combustion waste? If yes, can this administration articulate what it is to array our fears? The simple reasoning behind this argument is, if hazardous coal combustion waste is disposed of in unlined pits, dangerous chemicals like arsenic can leach into drinking water supplies causing catastrophic public health problems.

Malawi has enough issues right now. Creating more issues is not in the interest of any upright thinking and patriotic Malawian. The country is in dire straits; nothing seems to be going right. People are looking for answers. Its apparent, pressure to demonstrate that the leadership is not on autopilot is palpable. However, you do not create a potentially hazardous and probably uncontainable problem to be seen as resolving the prevailing ones. This is pure madness. When one has a chronic condition and is desperate for cure, the temptation to fall for anything that promises relief, even if it means for a short period overlooking its long-term effects is really high. Malawi is at that point. The economy is profusely bleeding. Constituents are running out of patience. However, we still need you folks in public offices to keep your sanity and exercise extreme caution when coming up with solutions to pull the country out of this quagmire for the sake of our children and their children’s children.

As a country we need to understand why China has eventually become party to the climate-change agreement. In addition to being responsive to Global warming, China has been suffocating its own people. Today Beijing is nicknamed the masked city because if its citizens do not wear masks with filters it is almost impossible to breath.

We are currently struggling to supply drugs to hospitals. We are grounding hospital emergency services and rationing food for patients. Can we afford to purchase masks for the entire Kam’mwamba or Neno population? I am not implying thatKam’mwamba will become Beijing immediately. We may not be able to live to see it but our children and their children likely will.

Our Chinese counterparts are playing a double standard. Initiating and promoting green house gas emissions in Malawi, while reducing the same in their country? According to Scientific American, China’s National Development and Reform Commission has laid out a plan to cope with climate change through the end of the decade. Theyare building more nuclear power plants, wind farms, hydroelectric dams and even to start employing more solar power, of which, the country installed 12 gigawatts worth in 2013. In fact, in 2013, more new clean energy sources were added to the grid in China than fossil fuel-fired power for the first time ever.

China has added several hundred gigawatts worth of such clean energy, the Three Gorges Dam alone pumps out 22 gigawatts and also hopes to add as much as 1,000 gigawatts of these low-carbon emitting sources by 2030. I find this deceptive. They are not investing in coal burning power plants anymore. What is their explanation for not doing so?

If China is serious about assisting struggling countries such as Malawi in boosting their energy production for economic growth and development, wouldn’t it be intelligent to invest in energy infrastructure that would not be hazardous to the people and environment? Alternative energy such as wind and solar will do just exactly that. I seriously think the Professor Peter Muthalika administration should take another look at this. Let us tread carefully.

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