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Drought in Southern Africa Creates Power Supply Problems, Risk of Social Unrest


Many countries in southern Africa are facing extended periods of drought, as the ongoing El Niño weather pattern continues to have a severe impact. The South African government has labeled the current drought as the worst since 1982. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean Ministry of Agriculture has compared it to the drought of 1992, which affected 86 million people across 10 countries and prompted a regional economic recession.

As food prices rise, so do the risks of social unrest. Increases in the costs of basic consumer goods and food shortages have previously prompted large-scale protests across the region, such as deadly riots in Mozambique in 2008 and 2010. Increasing costs are also a driving force for trade union activity, as workers push for higher salaries to counteract the impact of rising inflation. Claims that pay increases would not account for rising inflation prompted widespread public sector strikes in Malawi in late 2014 and early 2015, while trade unions in Zimbabwe have already become more active in response to the government’s recent failure to pay salaries. For commercial operations, labor unrest is likely to pose the most significant risk in those countries where trade unions are the most organized, most notably South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Zambia.

Blackouts, both scheduled and unscheduled, will occur with increasing frequency due to the lack of rain in several countries, causing operational disruption. Decades of under-investment in power generation infrastructure mean that regional electricity supply remains fragile. Hydropower accounted for 21.02% of generation in the Southern African Power Pool common electricity market in 2015. However, low rainfall is already reducing output from hydropower facilities in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The Southern African Power Pool — a common electricity market between 12 southern African countries — has been under strain since late 2014 because of power supply constraints in its largest member, South Africa. Low rainfall since late 2014 has exacerbated the situation, reducing output from hydroelectric facilities.

Although Mozambique’s National Water Board on January 11 stated that water levels remain adequate at the Cahora Bassa dam, the region’s other main hydropower facilities are struggling. The Kariba dam, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of electricity generation capacity in Zambia and Zimbabwe, currently has a water level that has been described as “extremely dangerous” by Zambian Minister of Energy Dora Siliya. Low rainfall and overuse had left water levels at just 12% of capacity as of January 18, compared with 53% at the end of 2014.


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