By Emmanuel Mwamba
“The country is suffering loadshedding for up-to 12hrs a day.”
“This is the worst power crisis our country has ever faced in the last 30 years!”. I said.
“So why won’t ZESCO take the power, negotiated from South Africa?” I asked with genuine desperation.
It was late 2015.
The country was facing the worst energy crisis since 1992.
Mines, industries, farms, businesses and homes were subjected to electricity load shedding and load management at first; for 4hrs, which moved to 8hrs and later to 12!
This was a power crisis that was immediately affecting the economy adversely.
Earlier I had stumbled upon a regional risk assessment report usually done for banks and related stakeholders.
The analysis on Zambia and Zimbabwe caught my attention.
The report stated that the two countries were facing a dark economy cloud because of among other things, the low water-levels in Kariba Dam, one of the main source of electricity.
The report attributed the low water levels to a drought facing the region, the worst in the last 30 years, caused by the El nino effect.
El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean that has a global impact on weather patterns.
But interestingly, the Report also blamed the low levels of water in the dam to a decision and action made in January 2012.
During that year, the Zambezi River Authority opened the spill or flood gates of Kariba Dam.
This was done partly because of excess accumulated water in the dam, but also owing to the growing fears over the structural integrity of the plunge pool at the base of the dam wall.
“Billions of cubic liters of waters, equivalent to 3 year of rainfall were lost by this action alone” stated the Report.
The report also stated that a total of US$ 296m had been made available by four cooperating partners to rehabilitate the dam.
This international financing included grants and loans from the African Development Bank(AfDB), the European Union(EU), the Government of Sweden, and the World Bank.
The report also stated that, out of the nine hydro power stations operated by ZESCO, the major ones are based in the south of the country which had become drier and drier because of effects of climate change.
The dams in this area were increasingly relying on water fed into the rivers upstream, hundreds of kilometers away from North-Western, Central and Copperbelt provinces.
But the report however stated that, South Africa, despite the troubles facing its utility, was enjoying good electricity surplus and that there was an opportunity for power deficit countries to import from it.
South Africa’s total domestic electricity installed capacity is an impressive and collassal 51,309 megawatts (MW).
On the other hand, ZESCO operates hydropower stations with a combined capacity of 2,217.5 MW and eight small thermal power-plants with a combined capacity of 11.3 MW resulting in a total installed capacity of 2,228.8 MW.
TRADING POWER IN THE REGION
The regional utilities have established mechanism to trade power under the Southern Africa Power Pool(SAPP).
The Southern Africa Power Pool was created by the SADC Heads of State Summit held in 1995.
The membership of SAPP comprises; independent transmission companies, independent power producers, power utilities; and service providers.
QUEST TO GET EMERGENCY POWER FOR ZAMBIA
The Country saw our Head of State visit Kariba and other dams to personally assess and appreciate the power crisis facing the country.
The President also made trips to Mozambique to negotiate for emergency power from that country to keep the country energy needs sufficient.
For us as an Embassy, we saw an opportunity to coordinate and get power for Zambia.
We began to engage and met officials at the Department of Energy and ESKOM, the largest utility and producer of electricity in Africa.
Our meeting with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)and his directors was facilitated by a Zambian engineer working as a senior official at the Utility.
After series of meetings, the CEO informed us;
“We can give you power, even beginning tommorrow!” He announced.
“We can give Zambia a total of 600 MW, 300 MW to the country, and 300 MW to a mining firm that has approached us.” He said.
“but there is a catch; we need to navigate the beuracratic forest that might prevent this to be rolled out on time. But we are hopeful since we have a road map”. He advised;
“We are already doing this with your neighbour”.
He said negotiating for such bulk power at commercial level with Zambia’s power utility would be expensive, beuracratic and the process would take a long time to execute.
I agreed, Zambia was reeling from the acute power shortage.
On our way to the Office, I called home; our Foreign Affairs, the Energy Ministry and later State House.
“South Africa has given us 300 MW, and we can have it immediately” I announced with much excitement.
“But the most efficient way to obtain this power will be through a bilateral process”. I said.
There is an open market under which SADC member states trade electricity using the Southern Africa Power Pool.
Electricity can be traded under bilateral agreements, or under Forward Physical Market -FPM(monthly purchases) or the mechanism to trade weekly or daily.
But bilateral arrangements are the legacy way in which the region traded power and the foundation of the power pool.
The President responded with a remarkable sense of urgency and we were informed that he had immediately dispatched the Minister of Energy to travel to South Africa as his Special Envoy.
After succeeding to get the Zambian delegation, we now had a crisis.
This was during the December festive season.
South Africa literally shuts down days leading up-to Christmas and way after Newyear’s Day.
We learnt that the President in South Africa, was on holiday at his rural homestead, the Minister of the Department of Energy had also travelled outside Pretoria.
We began to make frantic calls to the authorities at the Union Buildings, Department of Energy and at State House.
Our efforts were soon rewarded.
Because of the goodwill we enjoyed, the good name of Zambia and the deep crisis we faced, we got an affirmative answer.
The President was going to travel to Pretoria from his rural homestead shortly after New Year’s day and would meet Zambia’s Special Envoy.
And came 3rd January 2016, we were all gathered at Mahlamba Ndlopfu the official residence for the President of South Africa in Pretoria.
The envoy presented the letter from the President to the President.
She also took time and summarised our earnest and urgent request.
After the meeting, our technical experts from both sides were directed to immediately resolve the matter and ensure that Zambia got the power as soon as possible.
The Minister, on behalf of our Head of State, thanked the President for responding to Zambia’s crisis at such a short notice.
She also recognized his gesture and sacrifice because he and his team had abandoned their much cherished holiday to meet us.
“Zambia is our home. Greet my brother”. He stood up as he ended the meeting.
We left extremely happy and made joyful phone calls back home.
The following day both Zambian and South Africa media carried various stories on the matter.
The issue of the power crisis had deeply affected everyone in government beyond State House and Ministry of Energy.
Infact the country was awash with the business sector flooding ZESCO and Government with numerous proposals; from establishing renewable power stations as a solution, to setting up giant industrial standby generators.
There was also a Liberia-flagged Powership, a floating power plant. She anchored in Nacala, Mozambique and its operators and agents were also proposing to supply emergency power to Zambia.
But we all felt that the power we had negotiated from South Africa was the best, as it was organized using bilateral mechanism(state-to-state), it was bulk, cheap and payments could be made later.
I left this chapter satisfied that in our small way, we had helped the country and proceeded to preoccupy myself with other matters of our Embassy.
But two weeks later, the Eskom CEO called me with deep concern expressed in his voice.
“Your Excellency High Commissioner, I think your people do not want to take this power. They just won’t take it”.
“First, they won’t sign the agreement”. He informed me.
“They lifted power only for the first two days after the meeting. And now they have stopped. Surprisingly they now won’t respond to both phone calls and emails!” He said.
“And we have given ZESCO similar terms with your neighbour. If you look at the charges including wheeling charges, it’s the cheapest ever.” he ended clearly failing to understand our inaction.
“You know we also do have power challenges, so if your country does not wish to take it, please let us know”, referring to the giant utility’s own troubled issues.
I was shocked. Truly shocked.
We were still grappling with the power crisis in our country.
I thought to myself reviewing circumstances;
This is a matter directed by two heads of states, with two Cabinet Ministers from each country giving urgent directives.
This was also a matter where the President abandoned his holiday, his family, to come and respond to a crisis of another sister Republic but beuracratic officials won’t move for whatever reasons?
This is a matter, where the country was subjected to unnecessary loadshedding, where businesses lost revenue, industries were affected and homes were inconvenienced!
And the readily available power won’t be taken?
I couldn’t understand it.
I began to make frantic calls.
I never got the answer.
“Sir, the import from South Africa will affect the load as we are sharing the lines with our neighbour. It can trip our system”. A senior official from ZESCO finally called without answering my numerous questions.
I called and rushed to ESKOM for an urgent meeting to see how we could resolve this.
I was a grateful that a senior team of engineers was assembled to meet me.
We gathered in the board room and engineers laid out maps to explain how power is transmitted and shared in the region through the power pool.
“The ultimate success of any regional energy pooling depends on national grids and energy infrastructures”.
“We know that some national power grids are not only outdated, but also operate in a constant state of energy shortage, either structurally, or due to peak-demand failures.” He explained.
“Yes the pooling infrastructure requires investment, modernization and expansion, but we can guarantee that we can deliver this power to both clients(referring to Zambia and our neighbouring State).” He explained to us showing and explaining to us in lay terms, how it works.
“Recently, the World Bank has financed a 667 km HVDC power-line from Kenya through Tanzania to your country – linking the East Africa Power Pool. When the project is complete, we will be able to export from here up-to Kenya” he said.
“Your Excellency, let them give you another reason why they won’t take the power.” He put his power-point presentation pen down.
I walked away from the meeting extremely sad, coming to the realization, that there were strong forces and issues at play that I didn’t understand.
This was beyond me. I feared for my country.
But like I say, that is a story for another day.
Another power crisis is upon us. My hope is that we learn from the crisis of 2015.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of it.” 18th century writer and philosopher George Santayana advises.