Dwindling water levels are hobbling Malawi's hydroelectric power supply and putting more pressure on the country's already stressed forests, officials say.
The Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM), a public utility, says the amount of power it generates through three plants on the Shire River has fallen by 66 percent due to Lake Malawi's declining water level, which experts blame on erratic rains made worse by climate change.
This year, the southern African nation suffered a late start to the rainy season, followed by severe flooding in its southern half and then prolonged dry spells in many parts, causing maize production to fall around 30 percent.
ESCOM first revealed the dramatic drop in water at its hydro plants in August. It now says water flow on the river, the country's largest, is some 20 percent below what is needed to operate the Nkula, Tedzani and Kapichira turbines at their full combined capacity of 355 megawatts (MW).
“During peak hours we are losing 40MW and the daily average loss is 25MW,” ESCOM spokeswoman Kitty Chingota said by email.
Joseph Kalowekamo of the Department of Energy noted fears customers will compensate for a decrease in their electricity supply by turning to wood for fuel.
Malawi’s forests are already disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the Department of Forestry, the country loses between 1.6 and 2.8 percent of its forests every year.
“People are now using charcoal and firewood more because power is intermittent due to massive load shedding,” Kalowekamo said.
The shift could exacerbate Malawi's power problems, as deforestation in Lake Malawi's catchment areas may further reduce rainfall and, in turn, power generation.
“It is a vicious cycle,” said Kalowekamo.
Charcoal and candles
For the 9 percent of Malawians connected to the electricity grid, the power shortage is proving inconvenient and expensive.
Rachael Kapatuka, a housewife in Ndirande Township in Blantyre, has been forced to use charcoal to supplement her electricity supply since mid-September, after ESCOM intensified load shedding to ease pressure on hydropower plants.
Kapatuka has to make a 30-minute round trip each time she needs to buy more charcoal. It costs her 15,000 Malawian kwacha ($30) a month, more than twice her usual electricity bill.
“People may think charcoal is cheap, but it is not,” she said. “Small packs we get daily add up to quite a lot of money. And we have to buy candles, too, for lighting.”
The return to charcoal also brings with it health risks electricity is supposed to eradicate.
Now that Kapatuka has to use charcoal for cooking, she has no choice but to prepare meals outside the house to avoid filling her home with potentially toxic smoke.
“The smoke from the charcoal is discomforting, so I need to use it outdoors,” she said. “When it is windy, cooking outdoors is challenging because you get dust and other trash in your utensils.”
The drop in hydropower is also hitting Malawi’s businesses.
According to Collen Zalengera, head of energy studies at Mzuzu University, the downturn in electrical power production is bad for industries such as dairy and poultry farming, and for the economy as a whole.
“Dairy farmers waste a lot of milk because they cannot refrigerate it due to unreliable power supply, (and) incubation of eggs is disturbed which may affect the chicken supply at local levels,” he said.
The foreign exchange market could also be disrupted as an increase in the use of diesel generators boosts the need for fuel imports, he added.
Zalengera said the main problem is Malawi’s dependence on hydropower, arguing that ESCOM should fund the development of alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and biogas.
Everyone knows water resources are affected by climate change, he said.
“But there is no evidence the sun and the wind will reduce,” he added. “As a country, we need to invest our scarce resources in reliable energy sources.”
Energy department spokesman Kalowekamo said the government is exploring whether Malawi would benefit from developing other renewable sources.
It is also conducting feasibility studies on building new hydropower plants on other rivers across the country, he added.
In the meantime, ESCOM’s Chingota said the company is working on adding capacity to the grid using diesel generators, while asking industrial customers to shift their operations to times of low demand.
And to keep Malawi out of the dark, ESCOM is also looking further afield. “We are pursuing cross-border connections to tap available power from neighboring countries, mainly Zambia and Mozambique,” Chingota said.