Power cuts cripple Southern Africa

South Africa announced Sunday that it will temporarily stop exporting power to its neighbors.

scott wallace - staff

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.

"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.

Zambia, whose growing economy is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign copper mining companies, faces a similar problem. The blackouts caused Konkola Copper Mines, the country's largest copper mine, to shut down almost all of its operations.

Zambia possesses more than 40 percent of the region's fresh water and plenty of waterfalls, and relies on a handful of hydroelectric plants. But underinvestment in energy production, combined with the recent opening of new mines in north and northwestern Zambia, fueled by high global copper prices, has strained the system.

China to the rescue?

Currently, China is helping to expand the hugely important Kariba Dam on Lake Kariba, which straddles the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and serves as a key source of hydropower for both nations. India's Tata Holdings is working with ZESCO on a $150 million hydroelectricity project on the Kafue River. But dams also raise environmental concerns.

With the changing climate making rainfall more erratic in the region, Francis Yamba, director of the Centre for Energy, Environment, and Engineering in Lusaka, is pushing the Zambian government to look at feeding renewable energy into the national power grid and incorporating energy-efficiency measures. "In this country, energy is not used efficiently," he says.

In the wake of the national power outages, mines are scrambling to buy diesel generators, adding pressure to Zambia's diesel supply. Australian-owned mining firm African Energy Resources has set up a separate venture to encourage Zambian farmers to grow jatropha, a plant whose seeds can be turned into biodiesel. The farmers could then sell the biodiesel to mines, making money and lessening the strain on the energy infrastructure, says Alasdair Cooke, African Energy's executive director.

Next door, Mozambique, Namibia, and Botswana are all planning major power generation projects that, when completed, are expected to ease the crunch. In addition to more coal-fired power plants, South Africa is planning to renew its nuclear energy program.

All that will go a long way to easing the problem, Bennett says. But South African leaders will also have to find a way to reduce the country's energy demand, perhaps with financial incentives for those who agree to use less power.

"It's not going to happen next week or next year," Bennett says. "It's an amazingly complex problem we face."

In Zambia, the power crunch came just as its national team prepared to play in the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament in Ghana, which has annoyed many Lusaka residents.

"For sports enthusiasts, this is a very bad time," says Mr. Lubinda, who worries about ZESCO's ability to keep the power supply stable "For the economy, there can never be a good time."

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