A deep-seated energy crisis has hit Zimbabwe, leaving key economic sectors at the mercy of prolonged blackouts which are now worsening an already dire economic crisis characterised by high inflation, negative growth and high unemployment.
This situation is not an overnight development; for a long time, the authorities have negligently watched the crisis gathering momentum without taking decisive action to devise solutions. In a bid to save face, they have even coined a euphemism for the devastating electricity blackouts: load shedding.
Like all parastatals, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) has come to symbolise the worst failings of a government which has fared dismally in slaying the twin monsters of corruption and mismanagement.
Zesa says it is owed US$1,2 billion by defaulting customers. This is a staggering sum, by any measure. Many of these are struggling companies that are in desperate need of a rescue package, let alone money to settle electricity bills. However, some of the debtors are prominent Zanu PF politicians — including serving ministers — and top bureaucrats.
Zesa enjoys a monopoly in the power supply sector, so how can anyone explain a situation where the company is now on the verge of bankruptcy, saddled with huge debts and failing to service the needs of a captive clientele?
For decades, we have known that Lake Kariba is not the future of energy solutions. That hydro-electric scheme — superb as it may have been in the bygone era of mega projects in the 1960s and 1970s — has largely run its course and cannot be realistically expected to guarantee a source of cheap power to this country into the foreseeable future.
The country has to keep two critical factors in mind: Kariba is susceptible to the vagaries of climate change on one hand, while the physical integrity of the dam wall is at risk on the other.
To solve Zimbabwe’s energy headaches, the government must now move swiftly to implement the Batoka Gorge hydro-electric project, a joint venture with Zambia. Estimated to cost US$5,2 billion, Batoka could go a long way towards creating some certainty in the supply of electricity in this region of southern Africa — a factor cited as a vital prerequisite for accelerated socio-economic progress.
The financial outlay on Batoka is going to be enormous but, if the funding is carefully structured, the project should not become an onerous burden on the taxpayers of both countries.
Solar, an alternative source of energy which has been given plenty of lip service and no concrete action, has not been accorded the seriousness it deserves by both the government and the private sector. The incoming Energy minister, Fortune Chasi, has to ensure that independent power producers are not subjected to red tape and archaic laws which have proven detrimental to the national interest.
The national energy crisis calls for decisive intervention at the level of policy, strategy and fresh thinking.