Power, Glory, Sound, Fury

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker prepare to restore power to Zanzibar

Two international consultants prepare to restore power to Zanzibar

In solidarity with the recent (failed) efforts of the Copenhagen summit conference, Zanzibar is doing its level best to both promote and wreck responsible attitudes towards the climate and measures to secure our global future. We’ve had a power cut on Unguja, the larger island and seat of the Revolutionary Government for about 2 weeks now. We recently tried restoring the power, but the problem was discovered to be larger than originally thought and we probably won’t have any power for a few more weeks yet.

This is just an inconvenience for well-off individuals: most have generators (though I don’t), and can afford to eat out (be it at a nyama choma stall or a high-end restaurant) when necessary. It’s actually quite amusing in some ways. You can see us foreigners congregating in cafes with our laptops, using their power outlets to charge five things at once. Outside, I imagine a line of muggers licking their lips and lining up to a kind of ATM machine for thieves: a huge supply of laptops, mobile phones and cash-rich wazungu.

For the poor, though it is more serious: on the one hand, people in rural poverty don’t have power at any time in the year, so it makes very little difference. On the other, in the urban area (yes, that is singular!), the poor depend on electricity to pump water into their houses, and to provide security lights in the darker recesses of stone town, where the near-total darkness provides cover for the few unscrupulous individuals who do exist here. With water powered by electric pumps in urban areas, the ukosefu is also a public health nightmare. What water that is available isn’t always of the best provenance and may also be transported in dirty vessels. Water borne diseases are likely to spread rapidly.

The economy is being brought to its knees as well. Tourists on the mainland are forgoing Zanzibar; but enough are still here to require businesses to stay open with their generators running. These generators are incredibly expensive to keep going and a fair few places are operating at a loss. They can’t close though, because competition for the tourist dollar is fierce here, and sustained success requires constant positive word-of-mouth support. Being closed has long term ramifications. Beyond the service industry, much production in Zanzibar is undertaken using piece work. Piece workers don’t have generators, and so any work requiring machines is being done ad hoc as and when a generator can be borrowed, or not being done at all. Alternative employment is thin on the ground but people are necessarily looking.

All of this has really opened my eyes to how important it is to have reliable energy sources. Talking to private sector business owners in Malawi gave me an idea of how much money was lost in each power cut then (not to mention the hospitals running without electricity), but here it’s even worse.

Lastly, this isn’t doing any good for the climate. While many of us are operating in the darkness at home, offices and hotels use monstrous generators. One large hotel allegedly guzzles 800 litres of diesel each day to make sure its rooms have round the clock air conditioning. And yet, not a single project I’ve seen here examines alternative energy sources, such as solar power, windmills or hydroelectricity; and from accounts, few donors are willing to fund such studies. Why? Well, the power solution is provided by a European company – word on the street (not the most reliable source, of course) is that few are willing to put them out of a lucrative contract.

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I’m off to the Serengeti for Christmas and to the beach for New Years – I won’t be posting again until early January. Happy Holidays!

5 thoughts on “Power, Glory, Sound, Fury

  1. bsanchez

    December 23, 2009 at 10:53am

    Ranil,

    You are very categorical about this power cut not being good for the climate. Obviously it might be that the higher carbon intensity of diesel generators compared to electricity from the grid (what fuel does the power station use?) offsets the predictable decline in electricity consumption, but it is by no means certain.

    On alternative energy sources for Zanzibar: (1) wind is useful as a top up source of electricity, but you still need something to provide predictable baseload; (2) solar energy is still VERY expensive – subsidies paid out in the developed world are currently about 8 times the wholesale price of electricity; (3) as a small island I have doubts about the hydro potential of Zanzibar.

    Having said all that, your story suggest your nice island is not connected to the grid in the mainland. An interconnector would make a lot of economic sense.

    Enjoy your holidays,

    Bernabé (now an energy economist in the UK’s DECC)

  2. bsanchez

    December 23, 2009 at 10:54am

    Ranil,

    You are very categorical about this power cut not being good for the climate. Obviously it might be that the higher carbon intensity of diesel generators compared to electricity from the grid (what fuel does the power station use?) offsets the predictable decline in electricity consumption, but it is by no means certain.

    On alternative energy sources for Zanzibar: (1) wind is useful as a top up source of electricity, but you still need something to provide predictable baseload; (2) solar energy is still VERY expensive – subsidies paid out in the developed world are currently about 8 times the wholesale price of electricity; (3) as a small island I have doubts about the hydro potential of Zanzibar.

    Having said all that, your story suggests your nice island is not connected to the grid in the mainland. An interconnector would make a lot of economic sense.

    Enjoy your holidays,

    Bernabé (now an energy economist in the UK’s DECC)

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    December 23, 2009 at 11:13am

    Bernabe – we are on Tz’s grid. It’s the interconnector (and part of the the submarine cable) that’s gone. Now we’re using diesel generators on an ad hoc basis

    I didn’t really run any clear numbers about the power cut – the blog isn’t intended as a commentary on climate change, but it does seem to me that taking Znz off the TZ grid will have a negligible effect on their production, while we continue to use thousands of litres of diesel and petrol to power generators.

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