20 May 2017

Ethiopia: Power - the Bare Essential

Photo: The Citizen
(File photo).

Sitting forlornly at the local barber shop, for the occasional trim, I noticed a sign written in Amharic right above one of the numerous mirrors. Roughly translated into English, it reads "We now give services using generators." Right next to these printed words, a small handwritten notice informs customers that when generators are in use, the service charge will be five Ethiopian Birr more. To an outsider, the sign is probably unintelligible. For a native, all but a small price to pay for frequent power outages.

I was told early on in childhood that there are three necessities of life. The first is, of course, food; which also includes water. Humanity shares this feature with the least developed of species, even worms. The second is a shelter; a necessity ancient man picked up on his road to civility. Man only recently learned to build houses, the norm used to be living in caves. The third is clothing; a taste acquired with further development in know-how, the most significant indicator that man is different, better, moral, prude and conscious. These three rudiments together make up the fundamentals of living - the bare minimum for subsistence.

But humanity has come a long, long way. We have been going through several technological ages, like the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, the Renaissance or Enlightenment Age, and the Industrial Age. The 21st century has brought us the Digital Age or Information Age. Today's humans, with some exceptions, are far more different from their prehistoric counterparts. Sure, we still wage wars. Most countries still do not practice democracy and some nations openly disdain human rights. But many of us are trying to forge a better future of open discourse and peace and stability. And to realise our vision, we have to upgrade our bare essentials. We must expect even the poorest of poorest men to have more than food, clothing and shelter.

Data collectors and organisers like to break down development into various components. There is more to being a developed country than just having a lot of money. Literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, power, communication, and transportation are taken into consideration. But of all those points of measurement, power comes first.

Unlike his ancestors, for the modern man, life without electricity is unthinkable. How else can we power our household appliances? How else can we move from place to place? And how else can our industries run? We no longer only require food, shelter and clothing for sustenance, but power too.

For Ethiopia, an old civilisation that specialised in avant-garde megaliths and Coptic murals, power has been a somewhat elusive subject. It may have to do with the fact that our leaders became accustomed to the idea very late in history, certainly later than either the Westerners or the Easterners. Or it may be that our power generating (energy) alternatives are too rigid. For the longest time, I believed there was not a drop of crude oil to be found in this over-a-million square mile lump of land. But studies show that there are some oil reserves though not enough to brag about.

The only problem being that the country is not able to drill and refine them, instead preferring to import. Likewise, there is a high potential for natural gases, which, yet again, remain largely unexplored. As for coal, which could be found in almost every region of the world, reserves that could be mined with existing technology are nonexistent in Africa.

That leaves few other energy alternatives for generating power. Given the country's climate, both wind and solar are abundant in Ethiopia. But harnessing the power to meet the growing demand of a hundred million people is difficult even for developed countries. As for nuclear power plants, any country that finds it hard to refine crude oil should not dream of utilising nuclear chain reactions.

The only viable alternative that remains is hydroelectric power generation, which Ethiopia plans to lead in. This is convenient since the nation does not lack rivers. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently in construction, intends to be the flag bearer in this regard. According to government reports, the Dam, which produces a reported 6000MW of power, will not only sustain the whole country but is productive enough to be sold to neighbouring nations.

The Dam may not be the answer to all of the country's power problems though. The reason that there are frequent blackouts is not just power shortages, but also the lack of an electric power management system. Once electricity is generated in power stations, it then has to be transmitted to households, factories, and commercial establishments. And therein lies perhaps the bigger problem. The country's power transmission lines and supplementary equipment are not upgraded to be capable of distributing the available capacity. Replacing and fixing them may cost just as much time and money as it is taking to build the Dam. Until this happens, any lofty dreams of becoming an industrial powerhouse will be hard to realise.

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