Our student-fellow Irene Mutwiri sat down with Dr. Agathe Maupin, a visiting senior research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). Her expertise covers the geopolitics of water and energy resources in Southern, Central and Eastern Africa, with a focus on infrastructure-led dialogues in the African power pools.

Before joining SAIIA in 2012, she worked as a research and teaching assistant at the University of Bordeaux, then at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, where she focused on hydro-political challenges and climate change in transboundary river basins in Southern Africa. She successfully organized the Climate Change in Africa SAIIA conference on in Johannesburg in 2014 and has attended the Rio+20, COP19 and COP20 conferences. More recently, she has participated in the International Scientific Conference, Our Common Future under Climate Change, located at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Fun fact: “I have recently started to practice judo, not necessarily with the self-defense advantage in mind, but definitely because of the focus and confidence it brings along, as well as the pleasure of learning new techniques and some Japanese!”


FPI: How would you explain power pooling to a third grader? What challenges do negotiators face in forging and maintaining regional energy alliances (EAPP, WAPP, CAPP, SAPP) and how is compliance enforced?


Power pooling has existed since the early 90s and refers to a complex power system, which is used to balance the electrical load over a network larger than that of national electrical grids. This mechanism allows for the exchange of power between two or more countries via their national power utilities that generate or provide electricity. In South Africa, Eskom is part of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) and to date, it is the largest consumer and producer of electricity in the region.


Stakeholders involved in power pooling face several challenges. First, power pooling in Africa requires the coordination of not only national power utilities, but also regional organizations, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and its Division for Infrastructures and Services (DIS), notably to ensure the viability of regional energy projects. Given the development of renewable energy and the recent unbundling of national power services, the inclusion of independent power producers in the four existing African power pools is also discussed today. Second, turning these power pools into operational platforms is not an overnight operation. It requires fairly developed national grids with a strong set of energy/electricity policies; matching generation capacities to meet energy requirements and interconnectors; and a strong regional legal framework, including regulating rules and an operating center.


As power pools initially regrouped all national power utilities under the Memorandum of Understandings, it is less a question of how to comply than a question of how to face regional challenges. These challenges vary from one region to another but overall, underdeveloped transmission networks, inexistent legal frameworks, and difficulties in mobilizing resources and tools to finance regional energy projects come to mind.


FPI: What challenges does the SAPP in particular face? Do geographical factors contribute to these challenges?


The SAPP now faces the challenges of sustaining its recently established day-ahead market, on the one side and on the other side, faces challenges in increasing its technical support to the SADC DIS energy section to carefully select future energy projects to maximize their effects to the region energy development. Geographical factors are not a cue for the region to develop a strong energy system, although the region does benefit from excellent solar and wind exposure for the deployment of more renewable energy, for example.


FPI: Where does energy infrastructure development funding primarily come from?


South Africa investments in the REI4P came from Eskom, the SA government (department of energy budget), as well as banks and private companies (in the form of public private partnership). However, I am not sure this reflects the regional situation when it comes to investment in the energy sector. South Africa has developed the REI4P under its national energy frameworks and institutions specificities and the country has a unique position as the most important consumer and producer in the region and a middle-income economy.


FPI: Having organized and participated in a number of international conferences on climate change, how close are we to a new-and-improved universal climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol?


The Paris Agreement has been drafted and is now open for signature for a year. This agreement will succeed the Kyoto Protocol by 2020, after the end of the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period (known as the Doha amendment, agreed upon during the COP18 in Qatar). More importantly, the Paris Agreement is meant to be gradually ambitious. For example, this agreement focuses on a 2°C increase in the global average temperature, but invites to maintain this increase “to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. There is also room for each country (party) to gradually enforce and raise their nationally determined contributions, with a systematic five-year review period.


FPI: Where do you hope to see water and energy infrastructures in Africa within the next five to ten years?


Despite the diversity of national backgrounds among African countries, there is a common urgent need that is to address energy and water resources’ equity of access. Beyond the development of large water and energy infrastructures for import/export, a question remains about the quality of life for the majority of African people. I hope to live long enough to witness African governments’ efficiency in meeting the sustainable development goals for their population, by using all levels of actions (local, national and regional, even continental).


FPI: In 2014, you wrote about how South Africa’s growing energy sector solidified its relationship with the EU. How do you predict that Brexit may affect South Africa-EU relations? Do you think that energy will remain a priority in the Africa-EU Joint Strategy?


I believe the so-called “Brexit” will take up to two years to become finalized, and I am not sure about direct impacts on Africa or more particularly, on South Africa. However, Brexit calls for an analysis of the model of “regional integration” that has been developed by the EU. Despite the many promises hold by regional integration, a long-term member has chosen first, to use a direct referendum process to reflect on whether the UK should remain in the EU and second, to ignore the fact that the vote’s results are fairly balanced between the pros and cons of the EU regional integration model. An interesting question to raise is how the failures of the EU regional integration could have an impact on Africa’s future regional integration modeling and expectations.


FPI: What brought you into this field? What are you working on next?


The first time I came in South Africa was in 2004 to complete my Honours Degree and I had chosen Johannesburg Water Supply long chain (up to the Lesotho’s highlands water project) for my case study. I fell in love with the country and the region, and I guess that was how I became a “Water Politics Scientist”. After the completion of my PhD with a focus on hydropolitical challenges in the Southern African transboundary river basins (the Orange, Okavango, Zambezi and Limpopo rivers), the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) offered me the opportunity to apply my water policies’ knowledge and experience to the field of energy resources. Expectedly, it brought me into analyzing hydropower infrastructures, and as a result, African power pools.


Beyond these case studies around the development of infrastructures-led dialogues, I have started to work on the growing global change narratives and more specifically, on the geopolitics of water and energy resources under climate change.


FPI: Do you have any tips for emerging and fellow interruptors?

To early-career researchers in politics analysis, keep being passionate and obsessed during field work (do field work!), never stop questioning, and remain open-minded, notably to trans-disciplinary analyses, when back behind your desk!