GIS —A Light in the Darkness in the Sahel

By Jim Baumann

For the average person living in the industrialized world, electricity is something that is rarely contemplated; it is simply expected to be available in sufficient quantities as soon as an appliance's "on" switch is thrown. Even during California's power crisis, the sporadic interruptions of service throughout the state were more apparent in the press than the living room.

The luxury of plentiful electricity is however little more than a dream in most parts of the world. Many continue to live much as their forefathers, toiling from sunup to sundown; their lives dictated by our celestial clock.

Located in the poverty-stricken, sub-Saharan region of Africa known as the Sahel, the Republic of Senegal has a population of about ten million, of which more than fifty-five percent live in the rural areas of the country. The electrification rate in those areas currently stands at only eight percent, which is in sharp contrast to the urban areas where about fifty percent of the residents are on the national grid.

Ousmane Fall Sarr is the GIS Manager at the Agence Sénégalaise d'Electrification Rurale (ASER), the government agency responsible for rural electrification. Sarr comments, "Generally speaking, the electrification process is very costly because of the huge investment required to produce, transport, and distribute power. In fact, traditional electrification may require the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars before a single kilowatt of electricity is generated. For developing countries like Senegal, these costs pose virtually insurmountable hurdles to electrification, however without this strategic resource, poverty in Senegal will certainly be perpetuated."

In order to jump-start the electrification process of rural Senegal, the government is implementing an ambitious program that will be spearheaded by ASER and sustained by local initiatives. The goal is to bring electricity to seventy percent of those people residing in rural villages during the next 15 years.
The country has been divided into 18 rural electrification districts for implementation purposes. Three of the districts have been selected for geographic information system (GIS) pilot study purposes. In those districts, ASER is testing the GIS applications they are developing, data capture techniques, data modeling and analysis, and visualization capabilities.ASER is using ESRI's ArcView GIS software for planning, scheduling, and modeling their electrical system.

Sarr continues, "Considering the characteristics of the Senegalese rural areas and population, the use of GIS is vital if we want to insure the sustainability of our electrification program. We must take into consideration all of the possible constraints and demands on the system so that we can design an optimal electrification model. I believe that the use of GIS is critical to this process."

ASER is currently collecting data on rural villages that includes the identification of villages with more than 1,000 inhabitants and their proximity to a voltage grid, availability and location of village utility infrastructure, existing structure classification, assessment of energy demand, and the relative wealth of the local population.
This information is being incorporated into the GIS database and will be used with the technical and economic analytical model ASER is developing. This will help determine the type of electrical connections to be installed, such as connecting to the national grid or implementing a decentralized solution like installing a micro-power station or an individual solar electricity system. The GIS will also be used in determining the rural electrification implementation schedule.

The potential impact of electricity in the rural areas of Senegal is enormous. It is conceivable that this single utility can completely transform village life and stimulate a lasting effect on the country as a whole.

Electricity provides the opportunity to interact with the outside world via radios, telephones, televisions, and even computers. This in turn can reduce illiteracy levels.
Electricity can power pumps to transport water to villages and fields, as well as drive refrigerators for food preservation, all of which will alleviate some of the hard work performed daily by the villagers.

In addition to reducing the amount of some labor-intensive work, electricity can also help villagers increase their productivity by means of automation, giving them the opportunity to subsequently increase their incomes.

In short, having access to electricity can greatly reduce the level of poverty in the villages and stem the rural exodus.
Concludes Sarr, "With the use of GIS technology to help provide organization and direction in the sustainable development of the rural electrification of Senegal and the willingness and support of our villagers, we are certain of the success of this project and the ultimate economic transformation of our country. There is an ancient piece of African wisdom that says, 'If many little people in many little places perform many little deeds, they can change the face of the earth.'"

About the Author
Jim Baumann writes about international GIS-related topics for ESRI. He has written articles on various aspects of the computer graphics industry and information technology for more than 15 years.

Published Sunday, April 6th, 2003

Written by Jim Baumann

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