THE consequences of blackouts in Zimbabwe have been disastrous with families complaining of water-related diseases because the Zimbabwe National Water Aut
hority (Zinwa) cannot pump water due to power outages.
Industries have drastically reduced production.
In the education sector, practical examinations have been postponed.
Some employees no longer look forward to going home soon after work as they do not know whether electricity will be on or off.
The Zimbabwe Independent last week tried in vain to get officials from Zesa to outline what the real problems were at the power utility and what lay ahead for Zimbabweans. The official excuse from the parastatal has been that of foreign currency shortages and low power tariffs.
The company also says the increased theft of cables and oil from transformers and vandalism of substations have resulted in a number of substations catching fire at a rate which the power utility cannot replace.
However, sources in the power utility said equipment breakdowns and theft problems were minor issues. The current shortages, they said, were mainly due to problems caused by a reduction of generation capacity and reduced imports due to unpaid debts, poor planning and wrong priorities.
“As we speak Zesa is closing some of its thermal power stations because of failure to procure spares due to lack of foreign currency,” an engineer with Zesa said.
Mozambique’s power utility Hydroelectrica de Cabora Bassa in October reduced power exports to Zimbabwe citing unpaid debts. The supplies to Zimbabwe were reduced from 300 megawatts to 195 megawatts over a debt of US$35 million, forcing Zesa to increase load-shedding by 50%.
To make matters worse, frustrated residents were recently warned that there would be a significant increase in load-shedding due to reduced generation capacity at Kariba from October 26 to November 6.
“This has been necessitated by critical corrective maintenance which is being undertaken on the generator transformer serving Units 1 and 2 at the power station which is now long overdue,” said Zesa in a statement.
The engineer said government’s laid-back attitude towards power problems started after the 1996 World Solar Summit hosted in Harare. At that summit participants warned that Southern Africa was going to experience serious power shortages in ten years. Regional countries were therefore urged to make contingent plans to avert the potential crisis. This warning was repeated in 2003. Zimbabwean authorities did not do anything.
Zimbabwe remains the region’s worst hit, importing about 30% of its power requirements from increasingly incapacitated neighbours.
Ironically, Zimbabwe has the best power generating capacity after South Africa in the region. It has two big generators and about 200 small ones.
South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and other countries in the region reportedly have made great strides in investing in new infrastructure to deal with the projected shortages. The three medium size generators in Munyati, Bulawayo and Harare have been left idle due to shortage of spares.
The bulk of the equipment at these power stations have been canibalised to keep the large stations at Kariba and Hwange running.
Scores of new power projects such as the Batoka and Sengwa have been on the cards for close to two decades. In the case Bakota Zimbabwe has failed to raise fund to contribute to the construction of the power station. Mozambique, the other partner in the deal has expressed its willingness to put its shares of the capital needed to kick start the project.
Many families are relying on firewood for cooking but the price of wood has been escalating due to high demand. A bundle of firewood enough to prepare one meal costs about $600 000.
“On average I am spending about $12 million every month on firewood,” said Owen Mutetwa, a father of three in Mabvuku.
“What surprises me is that even if we go for one week without power, the bill from Zesa is always the same or more. Meat, milk and other perishable foods have gone bad, we no longer have long-term plans in such an environment,” he said.
Government in September promised that industry would be spared of frequent power blackouts but some industrial workers could be seen this week spending crucial production time playing ball games due to sporadic power supplies.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president Callisto Jokonya, however says industry has benefited and government’s decision to black out domestic consumers is justified.
“I think industry is benefiting from the present arrangement,” Jokonya said.
“We were consulted and we agreed the best way forward was to starve the homes to help the productive sector,” he said.
Industry players argue that while government has blamed its political stand-off with the West for the economic crisis, the reluctant manner in which it has handled proposals to end Zesa’s monopoly was the reason behind the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe’s power sector.
They argue that private investment has the capacity to drive the troubled power sector out of the current crisis because it will bring competition.
“Apart from foreign currency shortages, poor foresight by government is one of the reasons for the crisis as officials did not act on warnings of an impending crisis which had been given through research by the Southern African Power Pool in the late 1990s,” the engineer said.
As it came into office in September 2005, the Zimbabwe Electricity Regulatory Commission (Zerc) warned that the lack of urgency in developing power projects would be disastrous for the economy.
Last year, government rejected crucial foreign investment proposals for power generation by European companies fearing criticism for “supping with the devil”, preferring Chinese companies.
Five Western companies, Benadale, Australia’s Africa Energy, Perigil, Kudu Resources and Omega Corporation in 2005 put in bids to exploit uranium deposits in the Zambezi Valley.Experts said if authority had been granted, the projects could provide an alternative source of energy.
But a proposal by the mining affairs body (MAB) to grant Australian Stock Exchange-listed Omega Corp the uranium claims in a joint venture with a local investor were blocked.
Australia is a fierce critic of President Robert Mugabe’s human rights record.
China Aero Technology Import and Export Company, which was given the tender to rehabilitate Hwange and Kariba in 2005, is yet to start work because Zimbabwe does not have the required foreign currency to buy spares.