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Zimbabwe Mulls Alternatives as Fuel Shortage Worsens

Three weeks after increasing the price of petroleum products by as much as 300 percent, the fuel situation in Zimbabwe has not improved. The government is considering a variety of alternatives to ease the situation.

Stuck in an unprecedented fuel shortage since earlier this year, the Zimbabwean government has announced it is looking at alternatives to fossil fuels, some old; some new.

At the top of the list is reopening an ethanol plant set up during the colonial times after Ian Smith declared independence and the world imposed sanctions on the country, which was then called Rhodesia. Ethanol, which is produced from sugar cane in Zimbabwe, can be blended with gasoline. The plant is in Zimbabwe's sugar-cane growing Lowveld.

The state-controlled daily newspaper The Herald quotes energy minister Michael Nyambuya as saying other alternatives the government is considering are the extraction of oil from plants such as castor, soya beans and sunflowers seeds.

Ethanol extraction was abandoned in 1992 when Zimbabwe suffered one of its worst droughts. The Herald says after the drought Zimbabwe did not resume ethanol extraction as it became more expensive than gasoline.

The proposed ideas, some of which are still at research level, will not immediately change anything for Zimbabwean motorists and commuters. Some motorists have parked their cars for weeks at gas stations lining up for fuel that has not come. Prices on the black market have risen to as much as 10-dollars per liter at the official rate. The official price is just more than one dollar.

What remains of the public transport system and the minibus operators who augment it have hiked fares as a result of the price increases. Some also say they get their fuel on the black market.

The government has admitted it is caught in a foreign currency crunch, but President Robert Mugabe and his finance minister Hebert Murerwa say the government now has some money to import fuel. Mr. Murerwa blamed the high price of crude oil for the crisis. The country's erratic fuel supply started in 1999 before the current high prices of crude.

University of Zimbabwe economist Tony Hawkins dismisses the introduction of alternatives to fossil fuels as cheap talk and says even if the ethanol plant was revived the country needs fuel to mix it with. He said gasoline can be mixed with about 15 percent ethanol. He adds that sugar production has gone down as a result of Mr. Mugabe's controversial land reform and it is unlikely the people who used to run the plant can be persuaded to invest in its resuscitation.