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[KIGALI] Rwandan researchers have urged government decision-makers to provide more support for mini hydropower plant projects, which could solve the country's energy crisis and deliver power to isolated rural areas.

The call comes as ELECTROGAZ, a government-owned company providing hydropower, warned that the country's current level of hydroelectric and thermal energy production is "not enough" to meet consumer demand.

At a press conference last month (2 September) Jhon Mirenge, director general of ELECTROGAZ, backed mini hydroelectric power plants to boost energy production in Rwanda.

Hydropower was promoted in Rwanda in the early 1990s to take advantage of the country's numerous rivers and lakes. But since 2000 environmental degradation has reduced the efficiency of hydroelectric plants.

Fidèle Ndeshyo Rulihose, a researcher from the Centre of Energy at Rwanda's Institute of Science and Technology Research (IRST), says it is difficult to expect enough energy from hydropower to serve the whole population.

"The disadvantage of this technology is that it is expensive, considering that it requires a lot of water, as well as land for building dams and reservoirs," says Rulihose.

Mini hydroelectric power plants use small local dams to serve the immediate community, avoiding the need to channel power from the larger national hydroelectric plants.

In 2003 the Centre of Energy and the National University of Rwanda began a pilot project exploring the use of mini hydroelectric plants in nine districts of Rwanda. The second phase, which IRST hopes will begin in January 2008, will focus on the benefit to local communities, especially those in rural areas.

Rulihose and colleagues are calling for mini dams to be built around Rwanda, especially in isolated areas and the Great Lakes region.

Many projects are stuck in the planning stage, says Rulihose, and the majority will probably never be built due to insufficient funds and impetus to provide equipment, such as hydroturbines, generators and control systems.

The Centre for Energy also called for upgrades to existing hydropower dams and the establishment of environmental measures — to tackle water hyacinths that block turbines and the regulation of activities like irrigation, for example — allowing for more efficient use and less depletion of water resources.