Kariba water levels threat to local electricity supply

OPENING of the Kariba Dam spill gates has for years been a significant event on both Zimbabwe and Zambia’s tourism calendars, attracting international and domestic tourists for the two countries from areas such as Lusaka and Livingstone in Zambia as well as Harare in Zimbabwe.

Taurai Mangudhla

Depending on the rainfall patterns in a particular season, the gates would be opened any time of year, making headlines across the world.
Now, it seems the Kariba Dam will now make the news for all the wrong reasons.

The plummeting water levels that are obviously nothing to talk about in tourism terms, pose a major threat to electricity supply for Zambia and Zimbabwe after reaching an all-time low. Zimbabwe’s power generation capacity will further decline this year to worsen an already debilitating electricity crisis after water levels at the world’s largest man-made lake, Kariba, plunged to 16% this week from 52% last year based on Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) figures, spelling doom for the imploding economy.

For Zimbabwe the situation is worse given the significance of Kariba Hydro Power station, which at peak has a generation capacity of 750 megawatts (MW), a significant contribution to the country’s power grid. Currently, Kariba is producing about 450MW out of a national aggregate production of 966MW-454MW coming out of Hwange thermal power station, 12MW from Munyati, 24MW from Bulawayo and 20 MW from Harare, according to the Zimbabwe Power Company’s statistics as at December 15, 2015.

ZPC statistics show that national aggregate production reached 1290MW in 2008 before growing to 1341MW in 2009 and 1469MW in 2010 which is at least 300 MW above current production figures, threatening economic recovery as envisaged in scientific research which has in many cases proved the presence of a long-run relationship between economic growth and electricity consumption as well as a bidirectional causal relationship between electrical energy consumption and real GDP in the long run.

According to the ZRA’s latest weekly hydrology report, the water levels have sharply declined on a year-on-year basis amid fears of a looming drought.

“The Kariba Lake was created and designed to operate between levels 475,50 ms and 488,50m, with 0,70m freeboard at all times,” said ZRA in a statement.

“The Lake levels continued declining during the week under review, and closed at 477,79m on December 14 2015, which is still lower than the level that was recorded last year (482,66m) on the same date. All spillway gates at Kariba remained closed during the week under review.”

Lake Kariba is over 223 kilometers long and up to 40km in width. It covers an area of 5,580 square kilometers and its storage capacity is an immense 185 cubic kilometers.

Last week, the country’s power utility Zesa announced that Zimbabweans should brace for more power cuts.

“We would like to apologise to our valued consumers for the increase in load-shedding due to a technical fault at Hwange Power Station and low water levels at Lake Kariba,” Zesa said last week.

In October, Energy minister Samuel Undenge said power output from Kariba, which dropped from 750MW in August to current levels of 475MW, would plunge further to a meagre 280MW this month. A gloomy picture is more vivid on the Zimbabwe Power Company website’s load shedding status.

On December 15, the status was at its worst grading which is the severe grading.

The grading system has five classes, ranging from minimal then followed by light, before moving to moderate and then heavy before reaching severe.

Those that fall under the severe class include a number of residential suburbs and industrial areas in Harare and Chitungwiza which go for nine hours without power either from 4am to 1pm or between 1pm and 10pm. However, the situation obtaining on the ground is much worse with some residential areas going for more than 16 hours without electricity.

The severe load shedding has cost the country a lot of potential investment particular in mining which uses large amounts of electricity according to experts and this has drastically affected industry performance.

For business this has translated into high operational costs due to additional fuel costs while the individual domestic user has also been forced to either buy fuel for generators or buy solar equipment.

Zimbabwe’s industry’s capacity utilisation plunged from 36,5% in 2014 to 34,3% this year, according to the latest manufacturing sector survey. The sector has been struggling to stay afloat as capacity utilisation, which had risen to 57,2% in 2011 declined to 39,6% in 2013.

Launching the manufacturing sector survey in October, Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) chief economist Dephine Mazambani-Mutafera said the sector was under severe threat due to dilapidated roads, poor rail network and incessant power cuts that have taken a toll on the operations of the manufacturing sector.

The power crisis has become a major challenge to the economy with Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa publicly admitting it was a stumbling block to unlocking economic growth potential. Chinamasa recently told Parliament government is prioritising power generation projects, which are a key enabler to economic growth.

“We regard power generation as our number one priority in order to have a good basis for recovery,” said Chinamasa in Parliament. As early as 2013, a senior World Bank economist said Zimbabwe requires more than US$33 billion for infrastructure projects over the next 20 years to turn around its economic fortunes.

In her presentation at a Zimbabwean national business summit Nadia Piffaretti said US$11,3 billion was required for electricity generation-related projects alone while another US$13,4 billion should be allocated towards transport infrastructure development in the coming two decades and have a smoothed average annualised gain over the investment time horizon, known as a compound annual growth rate, of 6,2% and 1,3% respectively.

The country’s existing power stations are currently generating less than 1 000MW against peak demand of 2 200MW.

Government says supplies will begin to ease in 2017 if on-going long term power plant expansion projects funded by China are completed on time. China committed to invest nearly US$4 billion in the country’s energy sector as Zimbabwe looks east for capital intensive investment.

In the meantime, the country continues to count the cost of probably the worst power crisis to hit the country.


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