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HARARE, Zimbabwe – With the rains not having fallen as they normally do, water levels have dropped in a dam that supplies electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe, causing power blackouts, business closures and consternation. Some traditional chiefs are blaming an angry river god.
Zimbabwean media, citing the chiefs, said the low water levels at Kariba Dam, built in 1960 on the border between the two countries, could be due to failure to conduct traditional rites. The flow of the Zambezi River, which feeds the dam, has also dropped, depleting the famed Victoria Falls of its majestic power.
The Kariba power station is a major provider of electricity to the neighboring nations. Traditional leaders on both sides of Kariba Lake, which is formed by Kariba Dam and is the world's largest man-made lake by volume, have conducted rain-making ceremonies to try to stem further decline of water levels. They plan to appeal for rain in another ceremony on Saturday.
Former Zambian Vice President Guy Scott, who was interim president for three months until January, blamed the problem on "a weak regulator sitting between two puppies drinking milk from the same saucer," referring to Zimbabwe and Zambia both trying to exploit the dam as much as possible, local media reported.
Now, industry and households in parts of Zimbabwe are enduring power cuts for as many as 48 hours at a time, forcing massive production cuts for already struggling companies. Households are learning to do with firewood-cooked meals. Problems at other Zimbabwean power plants besides Kariba have exacerbated the shortages.
Droughts have forced Kariba Dam to reduce power generation by more than 36 percent, the Zimbabwe Power Company said.
In Zambia, stretches of eight hours without electricity have become common.
"No one is spared, not even myself," Zambian President Edgar Lungu told parliament last month. "I know how it feels to come back home and find that there is no electricity, or to see children who cannot do their homework because there is no electricity."
After Zambia's power regulators cut electricity supply to copper mines by 30 percent, mines are closing shop or cutting production. Zambia is Africa's second-largest producer of copper, the country's main export. Copper mines are the largest employer in Zambia's private sector.
Mopani Copper Mine, operated by Canada's Glencore, said it would pull out of the country by next year, citing low mineral prices and soaring production costs due to erratic power supply. The Chinese-run CNMC's Baluba copper mine, has closed, partly because of the electricity problems.
Small businesses that employ many Zambians such as hair salons and bakeries are also badly affected, Lungu said.
Zimbabwe's mining industry has also been hard hit.
"The electricity shortages have left us in a fix," said David Matyanga, economist for Zimbabwe's Chamber of Mines. Mining contributes 15 percent of Zimbabwe's GDP and 53 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
Because of that fix, alternative energy sources are being sought. Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnagnagwa told his nation's parliament on Sept. 23 that the government is seeking commissioned sub-contractors to supply 600 megawatts of electricity. The British firm Sable Mining Africa and Chinese company firm Citic Construction Company Ltd have signed an agreement with Zimbabwe to build a $500 million coal-fired power plant.
A Chinese firm, Sino Hydro, has started work to expand Kariba power station, scheduled to be finished in 2018, said Partson Mbiriri, permanent secretary in Zimbabwe's ministry of energy and power development.
Mbiriri said legislation is being drafted to ban the use of water heaters, which he said takes up to 40 percent of domestic electricity use. There are plans to install solar-powered water heaters nationwide.
In Zambia, the government plans to double the average retail electricity tariff early next year. President Lungu said he is hoping for investment in renewable energy such as solar and waste-to-energy projects.
Sichalwe reported from Lusaka, Zambia.