Power cuts cripple Southern Africa
South Africa announced Sunday that it will temporarily stop exporting power to its neighbors.
Power outages are a common occurrence in Kabwata, a poor neighborhood in the capital of this Southern African nation, where residents spend many of their evenings by candlelight, cooking with charcoal.Skip to next paragraph
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"Our electrical infrastructure is too old. It hasn't been rehabilitated for the last 40 to 45 years," says Given Lubinda, an opposition member of Parliament who represents Kabwata. Power cuts "occur in my constituency on a daily basis, regularly, from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m."
But when the lights flickered and then shut down throughout Zambia just before 8 p.m. last Saturday night, people immediately sensed that something different was happening.
The lights remained out for nearly eight hours, save for the lucky few with generators. The outage turned out to be the first of three nationwide blackouts over the next four days – part of a sudden regional power crunch that has underscored the fragile state of southern Africa's inter-linked electrical networks.
A national blackout simultaneously hit its beleaguered neighbor Zimbabwe on Jan. 19, and Zambian officials say the two problems were linked. This came amid a major power shortage in South Africa, the region's economic powerhouse, where increasing power cuts across most of the country have caused mounting frustration among businesses and the broader public. South Africa announced Jan. 20 that it will temporarily stop exporting electricity to its neighbors – bad news for countries such as Namibia and Botswana, which have their own power troubles.
"Over the last week or so, it's been a crisis," says Kevin Bennett, director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. "South Africa has been a major provider. Now we're in a situation where South Africa does not have spare power to share."
Looming power crisis
Energy experts have long warned of a looming power crisis in the region, part of a larger shortage of energy on the continent. Governments in the region are taking steps to address it through new investment in energy production. But that will take several years, say analysts and business officials, some of whom are already working to increase the use of conservation measures and renewable fuels.
In South Africa, rising economic growth and poor government planning, critics say, have left Eskom, the country's energy parastatal, scrambling to build new power plants. The crisis has raised fears in some quarters about the impact on foreign investors, especially as the country gears up to host the 2010 soccer World Cup.
"If I were an investor and I had to choose between Country A, B, and South Africa ... I can't afford to have my factory shut down every few days," Mr. Bennett says, noting that some of South Africa's most important industries, such as platinum and gold mining, are energy-intensive.