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Untapped potential: How the Trans Africa Pipeline project plans to solve the Sahel drought issue

Released: June 1, 2018

African Business Review
Trans Africa Pipeline: Delivering Water Security
By Wedaeli Chibelushi
A solution to the Sahel drought problem may no longer be a pipedream.  We speak to Rod Tennyson and Daphne Lavers, co-founders of the Trans Africa Pipeline (TAP), about their ambitious project.

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"A village will have clean fresh water drilled into the aquifer well, then the aquifers deplete and the wells break down," Daphne Lavers tells us. Lavers and her husband, Dr Rod Tennyson are frustrated that NGO-built African wells do not last.

According to UPGro (a research programme studying groundwater projects in sub-Saharan Africa) nearly one third of such projects fail within a few years of construction. One major reason for this is failure to train locals. Daphne explains: "NGOs haven’t trained anyone local to keep them going. It’s an irrational piecemeal way to deal with water shortages and it’s not necessary."

It’s not necessary. In other words, Lavers and Tennyson think that water shortages in Africa are not predetermined, inevitable or engraved by natural law. At the same time, the United Nations predicts that by 2050 over 50 percent of agricultural land in the Sahel region could be infertile by 2050.

Lavers and Tennyson (both Canadian) feel this is a sort of fatalism on the part of UN and NGOs. In response, they conceived TAP, the Trans Africa Pipeline project. In 2005, Lavers and Tennyson designed a fresh-water pipeline that will cross the Sahel region of Africa, starting in the west (Mauritania) and ending in the east (Sudan). Though it hasn’t been constructed yet, TAP has secured private financing, agreements with contractors and an agreement with the Mauritanian government.

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The proposed pipeline will be 8,000 km long, 1.2-1.5 diameters wide, cross 11 African countries and cost $14.7 billion.

What qualifies Tennyson and Lavers to lead such an ambitious project? A seasoned aerospace engineer and University of Toronto Professor of Emeritus, he co-founded FOX-TEK, which specialises in fibre optic sensor technology. "It became apparent that fibre optic sensors could be used on pipelines," Tennyson says. Armed with a Masters of Journalism from Carlton University, Lavers handles communications for TAP. Like Tennyson, she also has experience in the pipeline sector, which she calls "a hot button subject for Canada."

"When Daphne and I were listening to the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland [2005], they were talking about the water shortage in Africa,"” Tennyson adds. "Daphne asked that since I was involved in pipelines, why couldn’t I pipe water across Africa? That’s how it started." Now, TAP has left the starting line, with various backers cheering its progress. When complete, TAP aims to provide enough fresh drinking water for 28-30 million people across the Sahel region, along with water for them to grow crops. TAP plans to pump 800,000 cubic metres per day, and in two directions. There are two reasons for transporting water both east and west: "If for any reason there is a failure in the pipeline we can still pump in both directions up until the end of that pipeline," Tennyson explains. "Also, it’s for the security of supply. For example, if one desalination plant goes down or fails, we still have water coming from another desalination plant." Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan and Djibouti will each house a desalination plant, so there will be two on each coast.  

African Business Review

TAP aims to cover some of its costs through these plants.  Tennyson says: "If I put a gallon of ocean water through a desalination plant, only half a gallon will come through as clean drinkable water, the other half will be rejected as a very salty brine."  TAP will exploit the Sahel's high evaporation rate to produce salt.  "We expect to produce, in just the Mauritania branch, 800,000 metric tons of salt a year," Tennyson comments.  This by-product will then be sold on the open market at a gross value of about a hundred dollars a metric ton.  Tennyson believes this is necessary to pay off any debts TAP incurs.

TAP also plans to finance the pipeline via carbon credits.  The carbon credit system was instated as part of the Kyoto Protocol (signed by the United Nations in 1997).  A carbon credit allows a country, company or organisation to emit one ton of carbon dioxide.  Credits are awarded if the holder reduces its greenhouse gases below its emission quota, or reduces greenhouse emissions via an emission reduction project.  Carbon credits can be legally traded in the international market at their current market price.  "Organisations like TAP and other groups that use clean power will make money from these carbon credits," Tennyson says.

"If we were to build a power plant in Mauritania, we have no access to coal iron or gas.  However, the sun's energy can be used to drive the desalination plant.  Wind power can be used to provide power for, say, manufacturing camps.  We're going to power them and we're going to build solar power farms at each station."

The pipeline will also be funded in more traditional ways.  80 percent of TAP's current funds has come from private financing.  TAP hopes to secure the remaining capex financing soon; the team is waiting for the pre-construction budget to be approved by outside investors.

Meanwhile, TAP has been making progress with the Mauritanian government.  Phase one of the TAP project will take place in Mauritania, and according to Tennyson it is a 1.2 billion-dollar project.  In May, TAP signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government, highlighting the intent for both parties to co-operate during all phases of the project. TAP hopes to draw up MoUs with the remaining 10 African countries and it is currently in talks with Sudan, Senegal and Djibouti.

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Tennyson is well aware that the progress TAP is making will be reversed if it makes the same mistake other NGOs have made.  He tells us: "One aspect of our pipeline project is to train thousands of Africans over the 11 countries, so the pipeline will revert to ownership of those countries."  Among these Africans, TAP plans to employ local graduate engineers and agricultural specialists.

Back in North America, TAP has been growing team of local employees.  TAP currently works with its Atlanta-based charitable arm, the TAP Foundation US.  TAP also has agreements from contractors who provide it with design advice.  Listed partners are based all over the world, and range from Irish project management company Kilmurn to the Pan African Agency of the Great Green Wall, an African initiative aimed at fighting desertification and poverty.

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"People say: 'Are you crazy, how can you do this?'"  Tennyson laughs.  "Well, we can do this."  He and Lavers recognise that the pipeline is an audacious project, but have the utmost faith in TAP's vision.  Alternatively, critics cite funding and intra-regional cooperation as major issues.  Tennyson and Lavers are aware that there will be stumbling blocks and that the pipeline is a long way from completion.  For now, they're taking the project phase-by-phase.  For Tennyson, the ongoing phase must answer the following questions: "Do the economics work? Does it function technically as projected? Is the water sufficient for the people as well as for irrigation?" he asks.  "When that's done, we jump to phase 2 ans away we go!"

June issue of the African Business Review.

Released by: TAP