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MALAWI: ”All-Day Electricity”-As Long As It Is Not Peak Time

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Jul 16 2007 (IPS) - Patients have over many years frequently been denied scheduled surgical operations at the Holy Family Hospital in Malawi’s southern region due to abrupt power cuts.

Medical personnel at the hospital have had no option but to make the sick wait for important medical procedures until the country’s sole electricity utility company, Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM), restored the electricity.

The hospital, which caters for up to 300,000 people, had to organize a fundraising event recently to purchase a generator as backup in times of blackouts.

‘‘For years we have had power failures. The small generator we had could not cater for procedures like surgery and other operations but now we have been rescued by the donation of a big generator,’’ said hospital director Rutger Anten.

Like its neighbour Zimbabwe, which is experiencing frequent power cuts due to the declining capacity of old equipment and critical shortages of foreign exchange, hospitals, industries and homes in Malawi need electricity backup because the supply is unreliable.

Most homes have to fall back on candles, oil lamps and charcoal or wood stoves.

During the rainy season, ESCOM blames its failure to be a reliable utility company on river siltation caused by environmental degradation. In the dry season, the company blames the effects of drought and decreased water levels in the country’s largest river, The Shire, where hydro-electric power is produced.

The electricity company says silt damages the power generation equipment while low water levels stops the equipment from generating enough power.

ESCOM Chief Executive Officer Kandi Padambo explained in February this year that the country has been coping with a shortfall of 40 megawatts since 2001 because two of its hydroelectric power stations, Tedzani I and II, had stopped working.

The ESCOM generation system has a capacity of only 245 megawatts against a load demand of up to 251 megawatts.

Padambo also announced that ESCOM was instituting a large load shedding programme to enable the maintenance of the power stations. This was budgeted for at 17 million US dollars.

‘‘We are now committed to rehabilitating the power stations in order to reduce power-supply interruptions that occur as a result of capacity constraints,’’ said Padambo.

But the power generation woes were far from over. Soon after Padambo’s announcement, ESCOM was hit by a machine breakdown at another power station called Kapichira. This reduced the generating capacity to 192 megawatts.

To manage demand ESCOM instituted a load shedding process on a daily basis during peak hours between six and eight o’clock in the mornings and evenings. But Malawians experienced even longer periods of power-cuts with some areas going for eight hours without electricity.

The frequent electrical blackouts at night have led to a wave of theft and burglary incidents. People live in fear for their lives and property.

Police spokesperson Willie Chingwalu has assured citizens that police personnel will intensify their patrols to safeguard people and their property, especially when the power supply is interrupted.

The Consumer Association of Malawi (CAMA), a body that promotes the rights of consumers, said ESCOM’s motto of ‘‘Power Everyday, All Day’’ is in conflict with consumer laws on advertising since the company is currently offering an inconsistent service.

CAMA spokesperson Burton Phiri said by maintaining the motto, ESCOM is insulting consumers who are being deprived of power.

‘‘They are switching off power in the morning when households prepare for the day, making breakfast or doing the ironing or washing up. All these activities need electricity. In the evenings, people are tired and want to wind down and have dinner. It is unfair,” said Phiri.

He urged the government to identify a competitor to break the monopoly enjoyed by ESCOM.

Minister of Energy Henry Chimunthu-Banda said government was not protecting ESCOM’s monopoly. ‘‘Any investors interested in generating electricity using water, wind or other forms are free to approach the ministry.’’

Malawians have placed their hopes on an electricity inter-connector project between Malawi and Mozambique. The project, budgeted for 84 million US dollars, will involve the construction of a 200 kilometre and 220 kilovolt power line from Mozambique to Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre.

The World Bank, the Swedish Agency for International Development and the Norwegian International Development Agency are financing the project.

In a move that could spark other initiatives, energy ministers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) resolved at a meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 25 this year that the sub-region should spend 7.9 billion US dollars over the next three years to boost power supplies.

A further 32 billion US dollars should be made available for longer-term electricity generation projects, the ministers decided.

According to the Southern Africa Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), the ministers agreed to undertake short-term generation projects that will add 6,700 megawatts of power to the regional network. The regional network is administered by the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) Coordination Centre in Harare.

The ministers are reported to be concerned about the loss of surplus generation capacity which could affect the region’s economic integration programme. This entails the creation of a SADC free trade area in 2008, a customs union by 2010 and a common market by 2015.

The region’s electricity generation capacity has lagged behind the growth in demand for power occasioned by the rapid expansion of the regional economy.

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