Climate change exposes Malawi’s under-investment in power sector

Globally, consistent and reliable power supply is fundamental to the broader development agenda. Without electricity it is not easy for the government to offer quality essential services in many sectors.

The private sector also needs reliable electricity to manufacture high quality products and offer world-class services. At household level, consumers connected to the grid, yearn for consistent power supply all the time for domestic use.

Since we require electricity to power our lives in many ways, erratic supply usually triggers emotive reactions. It does not come as a surprise that since mid-last year many people have been complaining bitterly as state-owned Electricity Generation Corporation of Malawi (Egenco) and Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) implemented long hours of load-shedding. Unfortunately, instead of analysing the problem of blackouts critically with sober minds, we rushed to do what we know best – complaining, gossiping, lying, blaming, condemning and politicizing the whole issue.

Politically-motivated tantrums have been flying around for months with some pointing accusing fingers at the current crop of leaders for allegedly failing to end blackouts.

The prime target of the criticisms has been President Peter Mutharika, then Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (Escom) and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Some in their criticisms tend to ignore the fact that the current president has only been in power for slightly over three years.

Amidst the flurry of mumbling, the heartening development is that after analyzing the gravity of the problem, government never buried its head in the sand but openly admitted that the country was indeed facing a power crisis. Without mincing words, authorities revealed that the heart of problem is the country’s under-investment in the power sector.

Whether one likes it or not, whether we are politically blue, green, orange, yellow or neutral, government’s explanation is very valid. The power crisis we have endured and continue to endure is a result of our failure as a nation to invest substantially in the energy sector.

President Mutharika may have his own shortfalls in how he is handling other issues but his explanation that we under-invested in the power generation is the truth. For arguments sake, let’s compare our power-generation capacity with those of our neighbours.

While our full generation capacity is around 352 megawatts, Mozambique generates 2,300 megawatts. Zambia’s generation capacity is 1,900 megawatts while Tanzania generates 1,358 megawatts. Compare that capacity with our 352 megawatts.

With that in mind, it is important to admit that all the previous regimes failed this country through their failure to prioritise power generation. Another mistake we made as a nation was to put all our ‘energy’ eggs in one basket. Almost 99 percent of our power supply is hydro-based and the consequence of over-relying on one source of power is what we are enduring now.

We have suffered massive blackouts because since last year the capacity of our hydropower plants fell. Power generation fluctuated between 135 and 200 megawatts, from a total installed capacity of 352 megawatts. The driving force behind our conundrum was El Niño-related drought that sapped water from Lake Malawi and the Shire River to critical low levels.

Unlike Malawi, which depends mostly on hydro power plants for her electricity, the impact of climate change on power generation on our neighbours is minimal as a result of their diversified sources of power. Tanzania is a good example. Out of her total installed power capacity of about 1,358 megawatts, 566.79 MW or 42% is from hydro-power plants, 607 MW or 45% is from natural gas and 173.40 MW or 13% is from liquid fuel. These are strategic investments Tanzania made in power generation.

As President Mutharika said during the launch of gensets in Blantyre recently, diversified strategic investment in power generation is what Malawi failed to do in the past 50 years and this explains our current power woes.

Having identified our mistake, should we continue blaming our former presidents and former ruling parties for failing to invest in power generation? The answer depends on who you are.

But among the patriots, it is said the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago. However if you failed to do so, then the second best time is now. This is the best time to invest in multiple sources of power generation – be it in extra hydro-power plants, cross-border power inter-connection, solar power and liquid fuel power sources like gensets.

As this is being implemented, patience is needed because constructing and commissioning power plants does not take few months but rather few years.