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Sierra Leone lights up from Bumbuna dam

New hydroelectric project provides electricity to Freetown and beyond.

The Bumbuna hydroelectric dam project is seen in this Oct. 20, 2007 file photo. President Ernest Bai Koroma made delivering electricity to the country his number one priority and now the dam supplies power to the capital, Freetown. (Katrina Manson/Reuters)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The construction company that Barton Cole works for no longer has to spend $5 a day to power generators to run its computers, timber and welding equipment.

And Abdul Kamara can now run a refrigerator and watch DVDs just about any time he wants.

“We had 24-hour lights as soon as Bumbuna was switched on,” he said. “Before we didn’t have lights because we [Freetown] had transformer problems, old pipes.”

Ask anyone here about “the lights” and they instantly mention the Bumbuna Falls Hydroelectric Project located 124 miles northeast of Freetown.

Switched on nearly two months ago, Bumbuna's electricity has made obsolete the noisy, diesel-reliant generators running in nearly every backyard, office and restaurant kitchen.

There are still occasional power outtages but they last a few minutes to a few hours, compared to the hours and sometimes days of darkness before Bumbuna began functioning.

Bringing reliable electricity to the capital city and the surrounding region of 2 million people has been a long-sought goal. The fact that it’s clean, renewable energy may not matter to residents, but it was a deliberate strategy of the government. Most developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are moving away from traditional use of fossil fuels to create electric power, says Ogunlade Davidson, Sierra Leone’s minister of energy and water resources. Sierra Leone can rely on water and solar power to light up the country.

That’s what he and colleagues from other least-developed African countries stressed at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

“We need to take a low carbon path to development,” Davidson said. “We want to make sure we’re not emitting as much as if we were using fossil fuels.”

Davidson is quick to point out that Sierra Leone and other African nations did not cause the resource shortage or climate change problems that have led to the global push towards renewable energy, yet these countries are suffering from the fallout.

Weather patterns here have shifted, and most farmers lack the technology and skills to make the planting and harvesting adjustments that are needed.

“We need to be compensated for it,” Davidson says of adaptation measures the African group pushed for in Copenhagen. “Africa has only contributed to 3 percent of the problem.”