columnBy Jeffrey Gogo
Liquefied petroleum gas has done for many low-income homes in Zimbabwe's urban areas what has long been forgotten - facilitating access to a clean, reliable and relatively affordable source of energy.
The benefits expand to include flourishing several small businesses importing LPG - both the fuel and its cylinders - for resale, sometimes through unorthodox means, causing unquantified national revenue losses.
As the impact of climate change worsen, reliable energy access has become a major challenge for many developing countries.
There are growing calls for a switch to renewable sources like hydro and solar, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel generated energy. But even hydro is facing pressure from climate change, as increased warming and frequent droughts threaten water availability.
Water in rivers, lakes and streams in southern and west Africa is expected to fall by up to 50 percent in 70 years, according to a 2012 report by the World Bank, due to high evaporation from a 4 degrees Celsius warmer earth.
In Zimbabwe, however, the energy problem is more a result of lack of investment into new electricity infrastructure and failure to expand into alternative cleaner renewable energy options including solar and biogas, which can thrive here.
The country's population has doubled to 13 million in the last 35 years, putting pressure on electricity demand.
Mining and increased industrial activity weigh in extra pressure.
Investments into the country's energy sector have neither met nor anticipated that demand, resulting in severe shortfalls that throw millions of homes into the dark for up to 15 or more hours in a day.
Although statistics are unavailable, LPG use in the urban home for cooking and heating has escalated sharply in the past 15 years owing to severe electricity shortages, yielding numerous dubious roadside traders of the dangerous fuel.
Quality standards and safety have been compromised.
But through a law passed earlier this year, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority is now trying to control the movement, handling and trade of LPG through and within the country's borders by licensing importers and retailers. The new regulations are a departure from the situation that prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s, where big oil firms like BP and Shell self-regulated using international standards, according to Herbert Mataruka, a Zera fuel quality technologist.
Home safe use untouched
However, the Statutory Instrument 57 of 2014 fails to address the more important aspect of the safe use of liquefied petroleum gas in the home, where it has gained dominance.
Wrongly used, handled, stored or transported, LPG - a fossil fuel derived substance - can be very dangerous because of its high inflammability, posing serious risks to human lives and property.
Whereas the SI attempts to enhance accountability in the LPG industry for tax and quality purposes, the regulation does not compel importers or retailers to raise public awareness or education on the safe use of this potentially deadly fuel, however, essential.
It concerns more on what Government can earn from the rising trade of LPG in Zimbabwe. Not that nothing should go to the public purse, far from it. But individual safety first.
A source at Zera confirmed our worst fears on home safety: "The regulations talk about licence categories, which are basically import, wholesale and retail.
"I do not think that (safe home use) is covered in the Statutory Instrument."
That's got the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) worried. "How will the Government monitor and ensure that consumers are safe and protected especially with many retailers around?" quipped CCZ's Henry Musongwe during a Zera workshop on LPG in Harare on Thursday.
"Before this regulatory framework is enforced, people need to be taught on procuring, packaging and using LPG in the home."
Neither Government nor the retailer will be expected to sit in individual households to guarantee or monitor safety for oneself or their neighbours. That's up to the individual.
But authorities can escape blame for a damaging fire from the improper use of LPG if adequate information and education was delivered, sufficiently and repeatedly, on time.
A section in the retail licensing component of the Statutory Instrument appears to touch on home safety.
"No licensee (retailer) shall fill faulty cylinders and in the case of individually-owned cylinders, the licensee shall advise the customer to take it for repairs to an approved or certified test station," it says.
But this part of the law is flawed for its superficial approach to reality. A profit-driven roadside LPG retailer, licensed or otherwise, is unlikely to turn away a potential customer on the grounds that their cylinder is "faulty", or so it seems.
It is not uncommon that scales are doctored to produce false readings as a way to maximise profits. A faulty looking cylinder will certainly do little to prevent the cunning retailer from disregarding the SI's cautions, even in face of possible punishment.
End users will be better served through dedicated public awareness and education programmes, in addition to statutory retail and wholesale safety enforcements.
Mataruka, the Zera fuel quality expert said regulation was critical in view of the rising number of small and sometimes unlicensed businesses handling LPG but saw loopholes in the system as well.
"The increase (in LPG businesses) warrants regulation because there has been complaints surrounding safety and quality standards, in terms of handling from distribution to packaging and filling," he said at the workshop.
However, "there's a lot of people who handle (liquefied petroleum gas) but do not know how dangerous it is, and its proper usage and storage etc. We would want to promote its usage in rural areas too so that we save the environment from the cutting down of trees."
The average Zimbabwean household consumes up to 8kg of LPG in a month, if used as a stand-by energy source to unreliable on-grid electricity. That is just over $20 each month.
Compared to polluting paraffin or firewood, most urban families will be delighted to part with that much amount of money to secure a more reliable, cleaner option that makes cooking and heating easier.
However, LPG is not exactly the kind of energy that minimises air pollution, but used in combination with other renewable energies like solar can result in significant reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.
The gas is fossil fuel-based, but burns cleanly releasing little or no carbons at all. But used as fuel in cars, LPG spends faster and causes higher emissions relative to petrol.
Nearly 30 percent of households in India use LPG, according to a 2011 study, and is also used widely in Brazil, Hong Kong and the US.
In Zimbabwe, liquefied petroleum gas, if fully exploited, can help change rural and urban livelihoods and improve access to a reliable and sustainable source, highly critical as the country goes through its darkest hour in electricity generation.
"No person (retailer) shall fill cylinders above 15kg belonging to other brand owners without permission from brand owner," says the SI, creating unnecessary inconveniences and ambiguities.
In this respect, the law is unclear whether a rural household that travels several kilometres to the nearest LPG filling point should be refused access to energy for a 20kg cylinder simply because the retailer did not have permission from the "brand owner".
The country has huge potential for LPG development, with a ready market starved of reliable power from the mainly coal stations that reliably breakdown frequently due to old equipment or lack of spares.
Statistics released in 2000 by Zesa, which are the latest, show that the national energy balance stood at 53 percent for wood fuel, 20 percent coal, liquid fuel 14 percent and 13 percent for electricity.
God is faithful.