KADUNA, NIGERIA (HN March 28) While millions of people around the world observed Earth Hour by switching off lights, residents of many cities and towns in sub-Saharan Africa sat in darkness for several hours Saturday due to a longstanding and persistent power shortage.
In the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, for example, at least four outages struck on the day Earth Hour was observed - Saturday, March 27. The lucky homes and business owners have generators, which send plumes of dark diesel smoke into the dusty air. One local restaurant owner could only laugh when he was told that he had involuntarily participated in the global sustainability movement that has become known as Earth Hour, when his establishment was plunged into darkness near the stroke of 8:30pm.
Earth Hour is a climate change initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, one of the worlds’ largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with almost 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries.
Ironically, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest energy producer - yet the country of more than 150 million people wont be able to generate enough electricity until much later in the decade, according to analysts. This is despite the efforts of the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo to pump $16 billion into the country's energy sector.
The rolling blackouts in Nigeria are attributed to an acute shortage of petrol at the thermal generation stations across the country, which have idled at least six stations. The available electricity volume on the national grid dropped from 3, 710 megawatts (MW) in December 2009 to 2, 543 MW in mid-March. The Ministry of Power puts available electricity generation capacity in the country at over 5000 MW per hour. People here hope that the new acting President, Goodluck Jonathan will be able to rise above political squabbles and restore a reliable energy supply.
Nigeria is the continent’s most populous nation and third largest economy - after South Africa and Kenya - but power shortages, rampant corruption, a brain drain and red tape, threaten to slow economic growth.
To be sure, Nigeria is not the only African country to be afflicted by power shortages. In South Africa - host to this year’s FIFA World Cup finals - lack of power has forced gold mines to shut down. One African writer has suggested that power shortages could negatively impact on the World Cup - darkening stadiums and interrupting broadcasts.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2007 alone, nearly two-thirds of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced an acute energy crisis with frequent and extended electricity outages. While conflict and drought can be blamed, the main reason is that demand has simply outstripped supply. Many power generation facilities rely on traditional fuels, which are in short supply, especially in non-producing African nations.
In the impoverished northern regions of Nigeria, many vendors could be seen along the main north-south highway Saturday selling firewood.
The IMF says that due to the slower-than-expected process of electrification, only about a quarter of the region’s population has access to power. In Angola, only about 15 percent of people have access. However, new, massive hydro-electric projects - such as a $7-billion, 400MW joint Angola-Namibia dam on the Kunene River - will eventually help to alleviate the crippling energy shortage on the continent. The region has a population of over 800-million - 80 percent of which live on less than a dollar-a-day - yet its installed generation capacity is no more than that of Spain.
Many analysts say the power crisis could hold the continent back in achieving ket Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
“Electrical energy is not only crucial to commerce and industry, but also holds the key to poverty alleviation,” writes Peter Kagwanja of African Insight. “Energy being critical to the provision of clean water, sanitation, health services, irrigation, telecommunication, industrial development and development of infrastructure, its absence means poverty and therefore, it should be central to transforming the rhetoric of "African Renaissance" into a socio-economic reality.”
Michael Bociurkiw reporting