Monday, February 13, 2012

Power to the People

Our heat wave continues. Temperatures have been hovering at around 30 degrees in Kampala, rising to the mid-30s at least in the north. Only the south west is slightly cooler, at a balmy 27 degrees. Today has been very close, with the temperature rising to 32. Thunder rumbled away all morning, then wild winds started swirling the dust around followed by a brief downpour, the first for a month. We relished the sudden coolness, but it was over far too soon.

How are we coping? Pretty well, actually. While Stuart misses the variability of Scotland’s weather, I just love the heat, particularly stretched out beside the swimming pool. A long drink with ice cubes – heaven!

Well, perhaps not the ice cubes. Our power cuts have got noticeably worse over the last couple of weeks. They are totally unpredictable. I emerge with dripping hair from a pleasantly warm shower to find that, alas, there’s no electricity for the hair drier. Our fridge is struggling and is more or less on permanent defrost surrounded by a pool of water. We no longer buy perishable food in quantities expecting it to last more than one day. The load-shedding always seems to coincide with my evening skyping to family. We try to keep electrical equipment on permanent charge but often find ourselves in the pitch dark, unable to watch the next DVD of The West Wing as our laptops are dead.

So, that’s what power cuts are like for the privileged 8% of Ugandan households which, like us, have an electricity supply: warm drinks, lank unstyled hair and reading by torchlight. Middle-class suffering.

What about everyone else?

There have been ongoing debates in the newspapers about whether the government should or should not subsidise electricity tariffs. Over the last month, the cost of electricity has gone up by 36% for domestic consumers and by up to 69% for larger industrial concerns. Recently the government was forced to slash ministry budgets to pay hundreds of billions of shillings in unpaid arrears to private power suppliers which had threatened to shut off power completely. Apparently subsidies have risen because of the cost of thermal power, introduced because of the loss of energy from the country’s hydropower plants.  Why has hydropower reduced? Because the water level in Lake Victoria has fallen to an unacceptable level, affecting in turn the River Nile which flows out of it. (See earlier posts about the impact of tree-felling on water levels.) Corruption has also delayed the completion of the Bujagali dam, the newest hydro-electric dam on the Nile.

One argument for allowing electricity prices to rise is that as it is only the rich 8% who use electricity, reducing the subsidies won’t affect the poor, especially as 75% of these subsidies go to larger businesses which use 60% of the electricity anyway (Andrew Mwenda, The Independent 27/01/12). Why should the rich be subsidised to run their hair driers, water heaters and fridges? The poor 92% of the population, he points out, rely on kerosene and firewood.

Other writers disagree with Mwenda’s analysis. They say that increased electricity prices and ongoing load-shedding have a major effect on the poor, despite the ‘lifeline tariff’ remaining the same. (Donald Kamugisha, The Independent 27/01/12 and Ndinawe Byekwaso in The Daily Monitor 05/02/12) Any disruption to industrial processes puts prices up for ordinary people. Automated dairies and grain mills can’t afford to have any problems with their electricity supply. The less food that is processed, the more expensive it becomes. In a country where inflation is running at over 25%, that has a major impact on people up and down the country, rich and poor. Maize milling plants, for example, produce one of Uganda’s staple foods, posho.

Cutting off the power means that water purification plants and pumping equipment don’t work, so the water can also be cut off. Stuart and I are all right as our nice flat has supplementary water tanks, but we’re among the lucky ones.  As a result of the rise in electricity prices, the National Water and Sewerage Cooperation has also increased water tariffs by 10%, affecting the price of jerry cans of water for those who have to buy it, as well as those few of us who have piped water. A number of areas of Kampala are now without water, particularly those in hilly areas, because of the power needed to pump water uphill.

Offices stop working. Administration can be pretty disorganised in Uganda at the best of times. Load-shedding results in thousands of office workers kicking their heels. Stuart and I alternate working at home with working in the office, depending on which building has got a power supply at the time. Ordinary clerical assistants can’t do that. The existing backlog of work gets even higher as photocopiers and computers lie idle.

Some industrial workers are laid off when there’s no power and their wages are docked. No one can afford that. Some offices and workplaces may have generators, but not all, and anyway, diesel costs money as angry city traders recently pointed out. Power cuts affect businesses like Hoima Cement and Uganda Clays which use local raw materials, making their products more expensive than imported products and less competitive in the export market.

Frequent power cuts are not, of course, confined to Uganda. They are a problem which afflicts most developing countries where demand outstrips supply. The Worldwatch Institute recently published research showing that across the world, more than a billion people have no access to electricity while a further billion have only an unreliable supply, affecting their health and livelihoods and the environment (for example, through increased use of firewood). In Uganda, we are promised that when the new Bujagali dam comes on stream, load-shedding will decrease. That will mean a reduction from the current twelve, to ‘only’ eight hours without electricity each day. Even then tariffs will not fall for 13 years, according to the State Minister for Energy, because of the need to cover debts incurred during the building of the dam.

However, load-shedding can have a much more serious impact on ordinary families than even rising food prices, limited domestic water supply and mounting paperwork in government offices.

Last week, Jinja Referral Hospital, one of Uganda's main hospitals, announced that at least 150 people had died in the last six months due to unstable power supply and load-shedding. At least a hundred of the deaths were of children. The hospital’s Director said that this estimate was ‘ridiculously low’. The hospital admits 400 patients, including 150-200 children, every day.

On at least three days each week the hospital has no power at all. The main wards affected are the children’s ward, intensive care and the operating theatre. A patient on life support may only last five minutes once the power is switched off. Load-shedding particularly affects children who need oxygen, for example, those with pneumonia, premature babies and those with heart disease or asthma. One nurse described manually pumping oxygen into a baby for over six hours. (Incidentally, the hospital is only supplied with one oxygen cylinder every month.) Patients who are receiving blood transfusions may also die. Vaccines stored in fridges are affected. Doctors and nurses who are in the middle of operations may end up completing them by the light of their mobile phones. Some medical procedures, for example childbirth, cannot be delayed even at night time. They take place in the dark, adding to Uganda’s already appallingly high maternal and peri-natal death rate.

The hospital has no money to buy fuel for its generators. It receives Shs7 million (£2,000) to cover all support services. Generators can cost Shs2.5 million per month to run. Sometimes relatives of patients undergoing surgery or other procedures will offer to pay for fuel for the generators but this is apparently against the law. When there is no electricity, there is also no water. The hospital has no reserve water tanks so water has to be rationed, affecting sterilisation and also halting surgical operations.

Jinja Referral Hospital is not, of course, the only hospital which is suffering such difficulties. They affect every hospital in Uganda, and many of them will have even worse death rates caused by power and water shortages. One interesting situation involved Entebbe Hospital which last month was closed because of electricity and water shortages, despite the fact that State House next door was fully lit. Ewanga Health Centre at Arua ran out of water last week and had to be closed. The only borehole in the community had broken down. As a result, patients had to travel for 20 or 30 kilometres in the scorching sun to the nearest alternative centre.  Last year, all generators at Mulago Referral Hospital in Kampala, the main hospital in the whole of Uganda, stopped working at the same time, a problem which caused at least 15 deaths on one day alone.

So getting power to the people is not about supplying them with unnecessary luxuries like TVs, DVD players and stereos. It may actually be about keeping them alive.

You may also be interested in the following posts.

Caring for the sick in Uganda (about health care)

Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda'? (about the Bujagali Falls hydro-electric dam)

Coming back to Kampala (about power cuts)

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