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SADC power woes: No light at the end of the tunnel

from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA – NOT so long ago, Zambia was an island of light in a sea of darkness.

It was exceeding its domestic power generation requirements and enjoyed the luxury of cashing on supplying neighbouring countries.

Half-a-year (six months) later, it cannot even produce enough for local consumption. Zambians have to go half-a-day without electricity.

The power crisis bedeviling the Southern African region has caught up with the country.

An unprecedented bout of load shedding, lasting up to 12 hours daily, has plunged Zambia into darkness.

The situation had already reached crisis levels between the end of 2022 and the beginning of the current year, with millions of Zambians contending with daily power cuts lasting up to six hours.

Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation Limited (ZESCO), the power utility, has doubled the prevalence of the outages.

The crisis is partly attributed to climate change-induced irregular rainfall patterns.

Such climatic change-induced patterns have left the water levels at Kariba Dam, the world’s largest man-made lake, precariously low and constraining ZESCO’s power generation.

Kariba, filled between 1958 and 1963, hosts hydropower generation plants for Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, the latter itself going through worse power outages.

While power cuts have been a norm for some two decades in Zimbabwe, they are a new phenomenon in Zambia.

As at the time of ZESCO implementing the 12-hour load shedding schedule on Wednesday, the water level at Kariba was at 475,60 metres above sea level (slightly over 1,3 percent usable for generation).

ZESCO operates the Kariba North Bank Power Station.

The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), which manages the Lake Kariba on behalf of the above-mentioned countries, eventually asked authorities to reduce electricity generation from 1 080MW to 800MW.

This has been reduced further to 400MW, insufficient for uninterrupted power supplies to the over 19 million people and the economy majorly reliant on copper mining.

The 150MW generator outage at the Maamba Collieries Limited (MCL) Power Plant for routine annual maintenance, from this week until January 20, is adding to the woes.

The 300 MW power station south of the country, proposed by Maamba (MCL), the largest coal mining company in Zambia, has the potential to cut load shedding by about four hours. It could reduce the scourge by more hours had its expansion not been stalled due to financial challenges.

The Kariba Dam crisis is apparently only a blessing in disguise for the ZRA. This is conducive for the Kariba Dam Rehabilitation Project.

“It is worth noting that the water levels currently obtaining at Kariba are favourable to the smooth implementation of the rehabilitation works,” Munyaradzi Munodawafa, ZRA Chief Executive, stated recently.

ZESCO on the other hand is in an untenable position.

“ZESCO deeply regrets the inconvenience caused,” it said of the unprecedented power cuts.

The power crisis could not have come at a worse time for the new administration of President Haikande Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND), in power since August 2021.

The electoral victory was heralded as a new dawn for Zambia, which attained independence in 1964.

The 2021-2026 UPND manifesto seeks to ensure that the energy sector shifts focus towards alternative renewable energy sources.

Before the current energy crisis, the new government’s priority was addressing the country’s debt distress, blamed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on “years of economic mismanagement, especially an overly ambitious public investment drive that did not yield any significant boost to growth or revenues.”

Zambia gained global infamy in November 2020 as the first African nation to default on its debt in the COVID-19 era.

It reneged on its US$42,5 million Eurobond repayment while also accumulating arrears to other creditors.

The power cuts therefore are piling the pressure on the new government that took over a country on the brink of basket case status.

Hichilema said his government was “very much alive” to the disruptions caused by the ongoing load shedding to various economic sectors, small scale businesses, vital installations, households and ordinary people.

“We are doing everything in our power to mitigate these challenges now, in the immediate term and long term,” the former opposition leader assured.

Hichilema said the Ministry of Energy was formulating an Energy Sufficiency Strategy to expedite processes for investors to develop independent power producers.

“Soon this shall be shared with the public with a window for Zambians to partake in power producing ventures,” he added.

The opposition Patriotic Front (PF), the ruling party when the country lurched into the debt crisis, is making the most of the power crisis to score political points.

“Power exports will continue. Load shedding will continue,” that is how the PF interpreted the president’s assurances.

There is more to the power outages than the economic ramifications and political mileage.

They result in the temporary unavailability of essential services such as automated teller machines (ATMs) and filling stations.

Crisis24 noted an increased security threat during power outages.

Blackouts could adversely affect security protocols, including alarm systems and electronic fences.

“Opportunistic criminal activity could increase during electricity outages,” the security think-tank stated.

Households and small businesses are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Alternative power sources such as generators come at a cost. Those that can afford generators also have to contend with the rising fuel costs.

Self-employed Melania Akamunwa lamented that the outages were a further blow to her budget as she could no longer buy basic such as meat in bulk.

“I used to buy meat for the whole month and freeze it. With the current situation, it’s impossible as the meat goes stale,” she said.

By its worst power outages, 58 years after independence, Zambia joins a list of countries suffering unprecedented load shedding that mirrors the energy crunch in the Southern African Development (SADC) regional bloc.

Zimbabwe is arguably the worst affected.

The country has had to implement 19 hours of load-shedding lately. Power is mostly available off peak between 00h00 and 05h00.

Frequent breakdowns at Zimbabwe’s aging coal power plants worsen the crisis. As of this year, Zimbabwe, which implemented the solar energy managed to reduce its daily load-shedding by four hours.

South Africa has been load shedding for around 15 years.

The year 2022 has culminated in its biggest power crisis, with at times up to eight hours of power cuts daily.

Neighbouring Eswatini and Lesotho have had to implement load shedding because of the deficiency at beleaguered South African supplier, Eskom.

Incidentally, Southern Africa is among the most vulnerable zones in the world to climate change, attributed to the declining water levels at Kariba.

SADC falls behind in Africa regarding access to electricity, with a shortage of the essential straining the bloc since 2007.

Yet it has ample resources for electricity generation, though occasionally lacking the capacity for development, according to the bloc.

SADC explained that although the shortage was expected to be corrected by 2019, projects intended to address the shortage lag behind deadline due to lack of funding, slow migration to cost reflective tariffs, inadequate project preparation, issues with power purchase agreements and absent regulatory frameworks.

These are stunting investment and financing in the energy sector.

In addition, coal supplies 62 percent of power generation in Southern Africa but the mineral is an emotive issue. It is considered a contributing factor to global warming.

“Weak infrastructure and foreign commitments inhibit use of the region’s abundant petroleum and natural gas resources,” according to SADC.

The bloc has identified pricing and infrastructure hurdles such as grid connections, manufacturing and quality testing as impeding development of the region’s renewable energy potential.

– CAJ News

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