Shedding the load

In Zambia the rainy season starts in November and ends in late March. The country relies on this rain to fill the rivers that flow into the mighty Zambezi, which in turn fills the Kariba Dam, which generates the nation’s electricity as well as an excess that is exported to some neighbouring countries.

The last rainy season started late and – aside from a late flourish that catastrophically coincided with the soy harvest – never really took off, so rainfall was considerably lower than usual. As a consequence the rivers and dams are low, and power company ZESCO is rationing electricity, or load shedding as it’s known. This means lengthy and frequent power cuts for the whole country.

Climate change might well be playing a part in this. There is no doubt that weather patterns all over the world are changing, and seasons are increasingly unpredictable in Africa.

Lack of investment certainly plays a part. Zambia’s population is one of the fastest-growing in the world, increasing by more than 3% annually, but there has been no corresponding increase in investment and planning to meet higher demand for electricity and water. The infrastructure is creaking, and now we must all look forward to at least six months of power cuts before – we hope – the rains begin to fill the rivers and dams once more.

While there is nothing quite like the power going off ten minutes after you’ve put supper in the oven to send you reaching for the corkscrew and the biggest glass you can find, I’m aware that for me it’s just a Force 10 nuisance. For business it’s different. Without power to run the pumps, crops cannot be irrigated. Harvests are already lower because of the rainfall deficit, farmers’ incomes are down, and many will struggle to pay for the inputs they have used, creating a ripple effect through many other businesses. Manufacturing is hit just as hard. Many companies are forced to use diesel generators to keep their businesses ticking over, massively increasing their costs as they simultaneously try to sell their goods into a weakened economy.

Load shedding on a national scale has been going on for only a few days, but already we are settling into a sort of resigned routine. We’ve stopped swearing when the lights go out, but merely sigh heavily. We’ve got candles and matches and torches strategically placed around the house. I am driven to rage by hours without wifi, but I’m just going to have to suck it up.

And the best bit is when the power comes back on. It feels like Christmas. Without fail we smile and give a small involuntary exclamation of pleasure. Let’s hope that this equanimity, and the modest sense of triumph and delight, see us through until the next rainy season.

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