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Power Struggle

Reporter aims to catalyze discussion about climate change and Zimbabwe's energy crisis

When crippling droughts knock out hydroelectricity for up to 20 hours a day, it's hard to ignore the relationship between climate change and energy access in Zimbabwe. So why isn't the country talking about it? Journalist Andrew Mambondiyani wants to chan

I am a freelance journalist and, in order to meet my deadlines, I need constant access to the Internet. But for the past few months, I often went up to 12 hours without Internet access due to power outages — ­­it’s been a nightmare.

I could not meet deadlines for some of my assignments and I lost income too. So I had to ask myself, why is Zimbabwe currently in such a crippling power crisis?

I realized that it was a mix of both poor energy policies by the leadership of President Robert Mugabe’s government and climate change-­induced droughts. It’s clear to me the electricity crisis has seeped into virtually all sectors of Zimbabwe’s economy.

Right now, the climate change debate in Zimbabwe is centred around agriculture, clean water supply, floods and droughts. But very little has been said about the link between climate change and Zimbabwe’s access to clean energy, with almost no research being done in this area.

When the Kariba Dam, which supplies water to the country’s biggest hydropower station, was crippled by drought, the government was caught unprepared. Experts were only thrust into action when the country was deep in the throes of a serious power crisis with some areas going without electricity for up to 20 hours a day.

It compelled me to do an in­-depth feature story to enhance the debate on climate change and access to clean energy. Specifically, I wanted the article to focus on how climate change is impacting or will impact Zimbabwe’s energy access.

But convincing a local editor to commission such a feature story proved difficult. As usual, there was a lack of interest about general issues related to climate change, particularly its link to energy issues.

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My desire to delve deeper into climate change and energy issues was fulfilled, however, when I was awarded the Access to Energy Journalism Fellowship. My first step was to travel to a remote micro hydropower station located south of the eastern border city of Mutare, which was temporarily shut down as a result of low water levels in the local river.

Local residents, who depend on the small hydropower plant for electricity, were left in darkness, deepening the devastation already felt by an El Niño­-induced drought in the area. Though experts say El Niño is not a climate change phenomenon, the drought conditions are intensified due to global warming.

It’s true that many local villagers, particularly the elderly, were not comfortable talking to me as they considered me a stranger. However, the few I talked with expressed frustration as they did not know what to do.

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much better in urban areas that depend on the national electricity grid. Though the situation improved a bit when the country started importing more electricity from South Africa, the future does not look good. Many people are now depending on firewood for energy and, as a result, the mountains surrounding urban centres have been stripped bare of trees.

Priscilla Mazanga, a Mutare city resident, told me that at times she uses dirty, discarded plastics to make fire for cooking. Though using plastics is very unhealthy, she has no option; she needs to feed her children.

But as the country explores options for clean and renewable energy, independent economist and energy expert Eddie Cross said Zimbabwe was not suited for wind power generation as there were few sites with sufficient wind.

However, Cross did say the country was investing quite heavily in solar energy and within two years Zimbabwe would get about 20 percent of its electricity from solar sources. As I am writing this blog, companies recently awarded tenders to construct some solar projects are expected to start soon. One company expects to complete their project by the end of next year.

It's an encouraging intervention, though a little late considering the severity of the situation. But as the expression goes, better late than never.