The lights are flickering on and off in Zimbabwe — and it’s much more than an inconvenience! Rolling power outages have become an unwelcome fact of life and it amounts to a “national emergency”.
Last week, Zesa spokesperson Fullard Gwasira outlined steps to combat a problem that has interrupted the operations of the mining sector, stirred anxiety about the future of the nation’s recovering economy and posed questions about Zimbabwe’s ability to lure foreign investors.
Power has gone off frequently in various parts of the country over the past few weeks, sometimes for up to eight hours at a time — as demand exceeded supply.
As if that was not enough, Zesa last week indicated load-shedding will be increased because of persistent generator breakdowns at Hwange Power Station. Wow!
It is clear the power interruptions in this country now constitute a national emergency. The problem affects millions of people and tragically others have died during surgery due to load-shedding.
In Harare and elsewhere in major towns, commuters navigate intersections with no working traffic lights. Restaurants wait in the dark for customers. And hospital administrators rush to find power for emergency rooms and intensive care units.
The problem was cast into sharp relief not long ago when it was reported 50 children died as a result of the power outages at Parirenyatwa Hospital, the country’s major referral hospital.
The state-owned electricity supplier, Zesa, initiated rolling blackouts after concluding “demand for electricity may exceed the available supply from time to time”.
But, the power outages have called into question government’s ability to meet its target growth for the next financial year. They also have imperilled efforts to combat unemployment rate.
This unfortunately means job creation will not be as prevalent as intended and the ability to reduce inequality between the rich and poor will take much longer to achieve.
The increased load-shedding is “catastrophic” as much as it is “diabolical”.
Besides, power outages often cause delays at printing press. That means newspapers sometimes arrive too late.
When are the long promised new power plants coming? The unbundling of Zesa seems to have come to naught as service has not improved.
Does Zesa need reform to ensure efficiency? Reform is needed because of Zesa’s poor performance in terms of high cost, inadequate expansion of access to electricity services for the population, and/or unreliable supply and the inability of the state-owned electricity sector to finance the needed expenditures on new investment.
Although some state-owned utilities have performed well, Zesa has not in a long time, and without the forces of competition or incentives of the profit motive to improve performance, it will result in excessive costs, low service quality, poor investment decisions and lack of sensitivity in supplying customers.
Power outages are the most dramatic instances the consuming public has seen to make the people wholeheartedly embrace reforms. This is a result of the high costs of alternative supply for those who rely on public supply of electricity.
This failure is associated with low operating efficiency caused by lack of maintenance, wilful damage on power installations and lack of strategic planning on the part of Zesa management.
The inability of the state-utility to finance new and needed investment is often compounded by poor public sector price or tariff setting which does not allow state-owned utilities to recoup all investments, as well as by inefficiency in collecting revenue due to it.
Hence, a strong hypothesis is that reform is more likely where there are obvious problems of shortage of supply, which give rise to frequent outages and less likely where there is excess generation capacity, making financial investment less important.
Electricity production and supply in this country have been a monopoly of Zesa. But, lack of managerial strategies has resulted in the steady decline in the performance of the utility.
Load-shedding has persistently affected domestic life as well as the activities of the industrial sector of the economy. For logistic and financial reasons, electricity plants are not adequately maintained. In some cases, where maintenance is attempted, reliability-centred maintenance procedure is not adopted.
It is true instability in the power sector negatively affects the domestic and economic lives of people. But, reliable service can reduce costs; improve efficiency and stimulate growth for small businesses that rely on electricity which can have a huge impact on the lives of rural and urban dwellers by creating jobs.
Introducing private sector participation can greatly improve quality, efficiency and ensure reliability of power supply. Power sector reforms will, in the long term, affect the quality of power in Africa through special customer service arrangements.
New prepayment methods, when introduced, will allow people to choose and monitor how much they wish to spend on electricity each month. Potentially, the most far reaching impact of power sector reform is the facilitation of economic development by creating a reliable and affordable electricity supply for power industries and small businesses.
Improving the efficiency and financial soundness of the power sector can attract new investors or free government resources to be used in expanding access, provided there is effective demand. Power sector reforms will however, introduce market-driven private sector participation that may encourage utilities to focus on providing electricity to communities that are viable and profitable.