Foreign Policy Blogs

The Continuing Losing Hand

Photo Credit: jbdodane

Photo Credit: jbdodane via

The tragic outbreak of Ebola in Liberia that has killed at least 1,800 people has only added another debilitating layer on top of a slew of other concerns the government and its citizens are trying to overcome, especially years of civil war that ravaged the nation.

The country of over four million people, with about $500 GDP per capita, has been stuck at the bottom of the human development index, a U.N. comparative measure of socioeconomic indicators of member nations. However, there had been an uptick. Liberia’s economy grew at 5.9 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank, led by increasing iron ore exports, construction and the services sector.

The economy now, though, has come to a grinding halt and GDP is expected to drop about three percent the rest of 2014. Manufacturing has nearly stopped, foreign investors are fleeing making it even harder to provide public services, there are food shortages, restrictions on international travel and trade, and inflation is ready to go through the roof. Summing the situation, the IMF said “the Ebola outbreak is having a severe economic and social impact, and could jeopardize the gains from a decade of peace.”

The poor condition of the electricity sector has made confronting Ebola even tougher. The Liberian Electric Corporation (LEC), the national electricity company, provides scant power to residents in Monrovia and no citizens living in rural areas have access to publicly provided electricity. Imagine how hard it is to administer modern medical care in that setting. It is hard to even keep a vaccine refrigerated. The vast majority of the population is dependent on kerosene, palm oil, candles, firewood, charcoal, and small gasoline and diesel generators to meet their energy basic needs

The decrepit sector is one of the many disastrous outcomes of years of civil war. The one central power plant – a hydroelectric plant — Mt. Coffee was constructed with a power capacity of 64 megawatts (MW) for $80 million, provided by the U.S. and the World Bank. The final phase of the plant was completed in 1973. However, rebel forces under the command of Charles Taylor seized the Mt. Coffee plant in July 1990, halting production and causing the dam to breach sending the country into further darkness.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came into office in 2006 and set small initial energy goals and an emergency power plan was enacted with the help of USAID, World Bank, Ghana, Norway and the European Commission. The projects delivered 10 MW of power generation capacity to the LEC and installed 50 miles of an initial transmission and distribution network. In order to rapidly expand the pace of electricity access and improve the operations of the utility, Liberia signed a contract with Canadian company Manitoba Hydro International in July 2010 to manage and build-up the LEC.

There have been signs of success thus far through skills and knowledge transfer. Plans have also been devised to install 38 MW of heavy fuel oil generation and the ground stage of expanding mini-grid and stand-alone power systems in rural areas. But the dominant focus has not shifted from the rehabilitation of Mt. Coffee, to enable some form of energy security for a portion of the population.

The rehabilitation is estimated to cost about $250 milloin – after the civil war and looting only parts of the dam and the steel penstock remained intact. The project will be financed by Liberia, Norway ($78 million), the European Investment Bank ($64 million), and the German KfW Bank ($35 million). When completed, the dam is expected to have 80 MW of power capacity utilizing modern, more efficient turbines.

The reconstruction of the hydro-plant is thought to be a turning point for Liberia’s energy sector and its development drive. The Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Patrick Sendelo, said coupled with the country’s strategic plan he envisions that “every homeowner, businessman, hospital, every clinic, who desire electricity, to have reliable and affordable access to it.”

Prior to the Ebola outbreak, the Finance Minister Amara M. Konneh has said infrastructure is the top priority for Liberia. Expressing the need for Mt. Coffee he went as far to say “even if it means we will cut current travels, fuels, cut other things to support this project-this project will happen.”

Various contracts have been signed for the engineering, design, civil works, equipment, and construction and for commercial operation to commence Dec. 2015 with the full project being completed in 2016. Rehabilitation work at the power plant began in May 2013 with the establishment of the Project Implementation Unit (PIU), while actual construction started in January of this year. A very serious question is will the government of Liberia be able to make good on its payments, especially in light of the extreme cash crunch and reorienting present priorities. World Health Organization spokesperson, Glenn Thomas, told the BBC in an interview that funds intended to be used to carry out development will be redirected to help fight Ebola.

A direct result of the Ebola outbreak is the rehabilitation work has come to a complete halt.

Expatriate contractors and LEC staff, including Ghanaian and Ivoirian electrical engineers, have left the country and locals are not sure when they will return to resume the project – if at all. The original timeline is out the window.

Initial Stages of Outsider Projects

Until 2013, Liberia has never had inter-ties with neighboring countries. In late 2013, Liberia received medium-voltage power in three counties bordering Ivory Coast as part of cross-border power exchange under the West African Power Pool (WAPP). The cross-border interconnection is managed by LEC. Currently, the WAPP Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (CLSG) transmission interconnection project is also under preparation. It consists of a new high voltage transmission line connecting the power networks of the CLSG countries. The CLSG is currently scheduled to be connected to the Liberia network in 2018. Once Mt. Coffee is operational, it will also be required to operate as part of the CSLG Power Network which will be used for interchange of power with neighboring countries.

Liberia is also an initial partner of the Power Africa initiative, which aims to double the number of people with access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia, Power Africa initially seeks to strengthen the energy sector through a set of infrastructure investments and reforms to energy-related policies and regulations. But power projects are huge undertakings and take years from concept to flipping the switch. In other words do not expect an immediate outcome.

When does it end?

Liberia needs, and has needed, expanded power supply to continue development and give opportunities to its people.

Now with the intrusion of Ebola and the resulting immediate halting of the Mt. Coffee Hydro Dam reconstruction and rehabilitation, it could be long coming before light reaches many homes, offices and factories across Liberia.




Joe Gurowsky

Joe Gurowsky focuses on energy, environment, geopolitics, trade, international development and climate related issues. Recently, he worked in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania regarding different energy related programs . Joe has also traveled to Costa Rica, Ghana, the UAE, Germany and Alberta, Canada for aspects of energy and environmental policy.