Saturday, 19 September 2015

Power cuts here, there and everywhere

Power cuts in Zambia - I imagined them to be just an occasional inconvenience, and probably standard for a real African experience.

Well that’s how it first seemed. We would randomly lose power, normally for a few hours at a time and only every couple of weeks. Because no power also means no water for us living here in Kaniki, we soon learned to keep large containers of water around the house. We made sure that torches, candles and matches were left somewhere easy to find. We even begrudgingly accepted that the toilet could only be flushed if it really had to be! And other than that, we carried on with life as normal. After all, this is Africa!

Walking round the house with a candle during a power cut made me feel like I was in the Victorian times and the first time I cooked dinner on a gas stove using a head torch was quite an entertaining experience. One particular night, I was eating at a restaurant in town when the power suddenly went down. The restaurant reduced the menu to food options that could be cooked in a gas or pizza oven, and we ate by candlelight. Many businesses, including Baluba Farm which is just across the road from where we live, were forced to use generators so that they could continue to function whilst the power was off.

Dinner by candlelight
Unfortunately these occasional power cuts have become a much more regular, and now prolonged, daily experience. Zesco, the company which generates and supplies electricity to Zambia, is a public utility which means it is owned by the Zambian government. Zesco’s slogan ‘Powering the nation’ now seems a little ironic! Zambian energy is largely hydroelectric, and produced by Kariba Dam which is a hydroelectric dam in the Zambezi river basin between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Zambezi River at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border

In June we heard that there was a problem with the dam, because of the low rainfall this year. We then heard that the problem was that the dam was in fact damaged. At one point we even heard that Zesco were still exporting electricity to other countries, although they claim that they weren’t. It’s quite hard to know what is true.

‘Load shedding’ was introduced in June. This means that country-wide power cuts are scheduled to reduce electricity and shed the load on a wider scale, in order to prevent a collapse of the power system. Load shedding began to be scheduled several times a week and this was quickly increased to five hours a day, either 5-10pm, 10am-3pm or 3-9pm. Although these power cuts were inconvenient, they became a lot more manageable because we knew when they would occur.

It is easy to moan but I haven’t actually found the recent load shedding as bad as I expected. Having advanced warning means that I can charge my phone and laptop in preparation, and work out the best time in the day to have a shower. A gas oven solved the problem of how to cook, until the gas ran out too! After a couple of trips into town, I was finally able to get a small canister refilled with gas, although there was not enough to fill anything larger.

Evenings in candlelight

I suppose that I have experienced just a few ill effects of the power problem. However Zambia is the second biggest copper producer in Africa, so load shedding is having a very negative impact on the mines. They have had to cut jobs and reduce their power usage and try to make up for the deficit by buying imports which are more expensive. Businesses and farms have to rely on generators, which puts their costs up and this means that the price of food is rising. The kwacha (the Zambian currency) has plunged against the dollar, which suggests that an economic crisis may be looming.

Over the last couple of weeks our load shedding has been increased to eight hours of power cuts a day (5am-1pm or 1pm-9pm) and we have heard that it may increase to 12 hours at a time! As the sun sets at 6pm every evening, we are spending many more evenings in darkness. It reminds me that I am having an authentic third world experience but I also wonder what longer term impact this situation is going to have on the country. Excuse the pun but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of light at the end of the tunnel!

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