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Environment & Poverty Times No. 5

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Southern Africa grapples with energy shortages

By Southern African Research and Documentation Centre

Southern Africa – a region containing some of Africa’s fastest growing economies – is at present facing critical energy shortages and has an urgent need to bring on line several energy generation projects.

Over the last year, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have had to resort to load-shedding as a stop-gap measure in order to conserve energy. South Africa, the region’s economic powerhouse, has been particularly badly hit by energy shortages with its mining industry – the mainstay of its economy – temporarily shutting down operations in January 2008 while the power supply situation stabilised. South Africa’s industrialists say the shortages are costing them billions of South African rand. Mining accounts for about 15 per cent of South Africa’s electricity demand.

The mining sector in South Africa employs about 460,000 people but indirectly supports about five million in total, according to 2007 statistics cited by the country’s Chamber of Mines. The sector also contributes a significant proportion of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product.

Zambia and Zimbabwe experienced severe blackouts in early 2008. In Zimbabwe, power blackouts have disrupted industry and commerce, and affected the country’s telecommunications network.

Other countries in the region such as Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland, which rely on South Africa for their energy supplies, have had to turn elsewhere for energy. Swaziland, which at present imports 80 per cent of its electricity needs from South Africa, has initiated talks with Mozambique; while Namibia and Zimbabwe have put in place a power-sharing deal that involves Namibian investment.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is making frantic efforts to ensure energy shortages will not bring to a halt the fast economic growth now being experienced in the region. At a meeting held in Gaborone, Botswana in February 2008 of SADC’s Energy Ministerial Task Force (EMTF), energy ministers from the region acknowledged the energy challenges the region faces, recognizing that high electricity demand “has outstripped supply due to, among other factors, the positive economic growth which averaged about five per cent in most of the SADC member states, and rural electrification projects in most member states.”

The SADC region plans to spend USD 7.88 billion on short-term projects to boost power supplies over the next two years while a further USD 32 billion is earmarked for longer-term electricity generation projects. It’s been calculated that in order for its economies to operate properly, the region needs reserve supplies of 10 per cent in terms of installed energy capacity.

In what’s considered to be a major development in the southern African region, Mozambique recently took over ownership of the giant Cahora Bassa Dam and its hydroelectric power company from Portugal, the former colonial power.

Another long-term project is the Western Corridor Power Project (WESTCOR), a giant five-country initiative that will exploit the hydroelectric energy of the Inga Falls site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Energy security in the region is becoming ever more vital as the SADC Free Trade Area, which takes effect this year, is set to spur even more growth in the region. The SADC energy ministers acknowledged in 2007 that although the region will have no surplus capacity by the end of 2007, the problem would likely be overcome by 2010 if planned projects are implemented and commissioned on schedule. The region not only needs energy to fulfil its economic ambitions: in 2010 South Africa is hosting the football World Cup, while Angola is the venue of the African Cup of Nations soccer showcase. Both events will require substantial energy supply inputs.

Whether or not projects and plans are speedily implemented is critical: in the past warnings about energy supplies do not seem to have been treated seriously enough. Nearly 10 years ago the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) predicted the SADC region would run out of surplus generation capacity by 2007.