Hiking the Rwandan countryside near Lake Kivu.

I spent a week traveling through Rwanda mid-way through my 5-week tour of East Africa.  It was mostly a vacation week, relaxing between field work in Uganda and upcoming workshops in Nairobi, Kenya.  I also tagged along on a few business meetings and field visits with Colorado State University. The breathtakingly beautiful scenery and honed Rwandan tourism definitely made for a vacation experience.  At the same time, the slower pace and conversations with locals allowed me to reflect on my sabbatical goals and see how climate change is showing up in Rwanda.

Kwibuka 25 – a common banner seen throughout Rwanda.

Kwibuka 25 – remembering the Rwandan genocide

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Kwibuka 25 banners with the sub-title “remember-unite-renew” can be seen throughout the country. Many of the Rwandans I met during my visit had something to say about the genocide. Through conversation it’s clear that most the country’s history and personal experiences are placed in the context of the genocide. Not surprisingly, visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali was both uplifting and foreboding. It was uplifting to witness the journey of healing the country has realized these last 25 years and the gains made in development, health and poverty alleviation. At the same time, it was foreboding to learn about the preventable steps leading up to the genocide and the number of genocides experienced world-wide since Rwanda.

Kigali skyline from the Genocide Museum

Climate Change – a growing threat to human rights

The same day I visited the Genocide Museum a friend forwarded me an article about the concept of Climate Apartheid – a world where the rich may increasingly shield themselves from the impacts of the climate crisis while the most vulnerable populations are left to suffer. (Guardian, 2019) The article summarizes a recent report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Alston warns of human rights deprivations in access to clean water and adequate food supply.  More eerie and tied to the museum experience, Alston provides a dire warning that “The risk of community discontent, of growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups, will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses. Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex.”

Hydropower plant overlooking the Rwandan hillside

Renewable energy in Rwanda – progress and challenges in climate resilience

With that back drop from Kigali, I set off on a 3-day tour of Rwanda with colleagues from Colorado State University’s Energy Institute.  The CSU Energy Institute is home to X-Power and its subsidiary Mesh Power Rwanda – operating the largest portfolio of mini-grids in the country. Of interest to my sabbatical, Mesh Power is most recently getting involved with mini-grid installations in Rwanda’s refugee camps at Mahama and Kigeme.

CSU’s Energy Institute is also advising a University of Rwanda PhD candidate researching failure modes across a portfolio of hydro-plants installed throughout the country over the last decade. Known as a land of a thousand hills, Rwanda’s countryside is a beautiful landscape of step farming on the steepest of grades mixed with rolling hills of tea plantations and other crops. From site visits we learned that Hydro plants are experiencing high silt loading from tree cutting to make room for development and reduced water flows from upstream land use patterns and water withdrawal for other uses such as mining.

This pattern of development not only affects power production from hydro plants, but heavier and more frequent rains from climate change combined with development patterns are causing increased landslides.  Last year, one such event cost 18 lives, leaving 300 homeless and prompting government support for relocating families. (Mbugua, 2019). Visiting the hydro plants in Rwandan communities reinforced what I learned visiting communities in Uganda about how rural populations in developing countries are especially impacted by climate change.

FemEng students from University of Rwanda and University of Glasgow

Rwandan women in engineering – our future is in good hands

On a brighter note, the closing highlight of my trip was back in the capital city of Kigali. I was invited to meet with the University of Rwanda FemEng group – a mentorship program for women in engineering in partnership with the University of Glasgow.  It was wonderful to meet with this rising generation of women engineers. We discussed their aspirations in improving lives through engineering and brainstormed ways to engage even younger Rwandan girls in STEM academic pursuits.  I shared stories of like-minded women from my home state of Colorado and our work at Colorado C3E. I had recently heard someone say that the world’s future depends on the fate of it’s 10-year old girls. That really stuck with me and prompted me to look into the source of this view. In digging further it’s easy to see why the UN is placing such emphasis on 10-year old girls as a global indicator of progress (Zerzan, 2016).  I left the FemEng meeting thinking if these young women are any indication, the fate of the world is transitioning into better hands. On that note, I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Nairobi  inspired by the next generation and ready to dig deeper into climate migration and innovations in sustainable resettlement.

Works Cited

Guardian. (2019, June 25). Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/25/climate-apartheid-united-nations-expert-says-human-rights-may-not-survive-crisis

Mbugua, S. (2019, April 9). Rwandan Landslide Casts a Long Shadow Over Survivors. Retrieved from Climate Home News: https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/04/09/rwandan-landslide-survivors-live-fear-next-disaster/

Zerzan, R. (2016, October 20). The power of 10: Ten astonishing facts about 10-year-old girls. Retrieved from United Nations Population Fund: https://www.unfpa.org/news/power-10-ten-astonishing-facts-about-10-year-old-girls