The Political Economy of Hydropower Dependant Nations – A Case Study of Zambia

Endorsements and reviews for my book

Paperback now available for £24.99 through institutional subscriptions to Springer Nature, ebook on Google Books for £67.65, to rent on Kindle for $34.39, hardcopy for £99.99, 298 pp., Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan and Springer Nature, ISBN-13: ‎978-3030712655

“Imad Ahmed’s deep dive into the story of Zambia’s development of and dependency on hydropower provides a timely input into how countries with hydro resources should think about their energy transitions to zero-net emissions systems that provide reliable, affordable, and clean energy for all. Like many other countries, Zambia relies on an aging hydropower stock, developed when the speed and the full force of climate impacts seemed either unlikely or far into the future. For countries like Zambia, how can hydro play an optimized role in a diversified energy system, efficiently, serving the environment, people, and industry, as regional weather patterns change? How will they be financed with levels of indebtedness climbing past prudent limits in Zambia and across the region? What is hydropower’s role in the energy systems of the future? This book is an excellent place to look back to move forward.”

 —Rachel Kyte, Dean, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA, Former UN SG Special Representative for Sustainable Energy Former World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change

“Imad Ahmed has written a fascinating and meticulously researched book on Zambia, which details the various challenges posed by hydroelectric power. This book is a must-read for all interested in Zambia and energy policy in the developing world.”

Pradeep Chhibber, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, USA

“One of the many devastating effects of climate change is that it exposes a fifth of humanity to energy insecurity. Through this brilliant analysis of  the country of Zambia and the challenges ahead for its hydropower sector, Imad Ahmed shines a bright light on this emerging crisis and what must be done about it. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in getting beneath the headlines of the effects of climate shocks and taking meaningful action.”

Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA

“Which comes first in developing economies, economic growth or environmental
sustainability? Imad Ahmed’s deep dive into Zambian hydropower successfully
pulls together many diverse and important themes. This book provides a refreshing
look at where traditional responses to hydropower can have adverse effects.
Ahmed’s conclusions might help developing countries ‘leapfrog’ towards environmental
sustainability in emerging markets while providing the power for growth
and standards of living that their citizens deserve.”
Michael Mainelli, Professor, Alderman & Sheriff of the City of London,
Executive Chairman, Z/Yen Group, UK

“Imaduddin Ahmed takes Zambia as a case example for a country highly dependent on hydropower and how it came to be so in part because of World Bank investments. Nonetheless, hydropower as a “green alternative” to fossil fuels poses its own energy insecurity, especially in a country that experiences drought, as seen in the power outages of 2015 and 2016, and made worse my global climate change. Ahmed does an excellent job analyzing Zambia’s reliance on hydropower, through path dependence theory, and provides recommendations for achieving greater low-carbon energy security in countries that experience drought. A must read.”

Michael Uy, Allston Burr Resident Dean, Dunster House | Assistant Dean of Harvard College | Lecturer and ADUS Music

“This book lacks an attention-grabbing title, but its author reminds us that until recently the World Bank funded many projects in the developing world which are designed to benefit the West. The study also makes grim reading for proponents of hydropower as a sustainable energy source because, among other things, climate change is causing drought and emptying reservoirs. Drought is therefore causing power supply disruption, making it hard for nations wishing to diversify into manufacturing and away from relying on mining or subsistence agriculture.


Dr Imaduddin Ahmed was motivated to investigate Zambia’s hydropower provider, ZESCO, after repeated power outages in 2015-16. For decades the World Bank applied a template for development based on the Tennessee Valley Authority, an FDR-era project that revolutionized the lives of millions of poor Americans. Put simply, the TVA stimulated a consumer boom for US-made products and created employment. The World Bank then imposed the TVA model on countries with no domestic manufacturing base, meaning that America had new export markets for its goods.

The WB began funding hydro power plants on the Zambezi in 1956, giving the copper mines (run by foreign companies paying tax elsewhere) the energy they needed. Few local jobs were created. The eventual economic uptick was then wiped out in the 1990s when international financial institutions imposed structural adjustment, forcing governments to sell off their assets and drop import tariffs. All these years later, only 33% of Zambians have access to the grid: it remains geared to the benefit of the mining companies who consumer 70-80% of power and pay subsidised prices. Now that climate change is causing drought, there are frequent outages, forcing manufacturers and others to use highly polluting diesel generators. (Anyone spending time in Africa will be familiar to the rattling drone and greasy smell of generators that supply as much as a fifth of the continent’s energy).

Dr Ahmed runs through the alternatives to hydro, suggesting a mix of sources, and regional integrated power grids. But where the WB left off, Chinese state companies now secure construction contracts and mining concessions through corruption (according to a former director of the Central Bank of Zambia). We are reminded that the world needs an efficient means of storing sustainable produced energy. Despite its rather heavy-going appearance, this book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the developing world and/ or the environment.”

Rebecca Tinsley, Interlib – Journal of the Liberal International British Group

“The increasing urgency of the global climate crisis has rekindled enthusiasm for renewable energy, which has in turn encouraged greater scrutiny of a given country’s energy mix. In western countries, this has generally taken the form of national commitments to decarbonisation of the energy supply, phasing out fossil fuels in favour of greener alternatives such as on-grid wind turbines and off-grid solar photovoltaics. By contrast in developing countries, there has been a long-standing preference for hydropower projects.

Many policymakers, public officials and even the public themselves believe that hydropower is consistent with deep decarbonisation, and that hydropower projects are thus bankable on both ESG and economic grounds. The reality is rather more complex, as Dr. Ahmed’s pioneering study of Zambia’s dependence on hydropower reveals.

In the course of examining the political economy of Zambia’s energy mix, Dr. Ahmed asks hard questions about how far hydropower is sustainable if extreme weather events, such as droughts caused by El Niño, reduce reservoir levels by as much as 95% and force firms to rely on diesel backup generators, which are sources of both carbon emissions and air pollution.
Moreover, the proliferation of smaller-scale hydropower projects represents a significant source of embedded carbon; if brought on-stream, these dams are further destined to destroy natural carbon sinks. Hydropower undoubtedly has a significant role to play, but over-reliance comes at a cost and the externalities caused by these projects deserve closer attention.

When I agreed to supervise Dr. Ahmed’s doctoral dissertation at the University College London’s (UCL) Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, I would not have been able to predict that one of the chief we agreed a revised scope of work with the International Growth Centre for a Department for International Development (DFID)-funded project titled, ‘Electricity Crises in Zambia: Estimating the Costs of Unreliability at Firm Level,’ which aimed to understand the consequences of nationwide power outages caused by droughts the previous year. The inability of the hydropower-dependent utility, ZESCO, to cope with these droughts, especially in the face of rising electricity demand, had, in turn, actively undermined Zambia’s industrial policy, which had been to diversify growth away from the primary sector (mining and agriculture) with a policy mix that encouraged export-oriented, electricity-dependent manufacturing firms. Our task was to quantify the adverse welfare effects, from the perspective of these firms, of this unmet demand for electricity and to understand how far the policy response, which was to waive import duties on diesel backup generators, represented an adequate and effective mitigation strategy. Our method was to survey a stratified sample of manufacturing firms, geographically located in Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

This research work, ably project-managed by Dr. Ahmed and field-managed by Mr. Graham Sianjase, rapidly revealed nuanced mitigation strategies employed by the wide range of firms sampled, which made it possible to assess wider environmental impacts. Dr. Ahmed’s path-breaking research highlights the importance of the contributions made by modern environmental economics to infrastructure economics as a discipline.

Moreover, in exploring winners and losers, at the firm level, he was able to focus attention on the political economy of energy policy, and by doing so to formulate cogent policy recommendations for regulators, legislators and managers of energy utilities. One can only hope that other researchers will follow in his footsteps as the climate crisis accelerates and forces hard choices about reconciling sustainability and growth agendas.”

D’Maris Coffman, Professor of Economics and Finance of the Built Environment, University College London

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