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Zanzibar's three-month blackout

Indian Ocean islands go for 90 days without power, causing business problems and water shortages.

After three months without electric power, the lights have come back on in Zanzibar. During the power outage, chef John Paul posed behind unrefrigerated food displayed on his grill stand in the seaside Forodhani Gardens of Stone Town, Zanzibar, Dec. 19, 2009. Zanzibar's tourism sector suffered heavy losses during the outage caused by a broken connector. (Katrina Manson/Reuters)

STONE TOWN, Zanzibar — The lights are back on in Zanzibar.

After an unprecedented three-month power blackout, electricity has been restored, but not before the Indian Ocean islands' residents suffered severe economic hardship and coped with widespread water shortages.

On March 9, the islands’ undersea power cable was finally repaired and reconnected to the national power grid on the Tanzanian mainland, allowing residents to use running water and refrigerators in their homes for the first time in 90 days.

Nevertheless, the effects of the blackout will be felt for a long time to come by Zanzibar's residents, 49 percent of whom already live under the poverty line.

Muana Kombo Slimba Kombo, 38, runs a small business selling clothes and shoes on Zanzibar’s largest island, Unguja. The cost of buying diesel to run a generator so that she could pump water from a neighbor's well, nearly bled her enterprise dry.

"Sometimes I didn't have money to pay for diesel and I was forced to use capital from the business,” said Kombo, a mother of two. "Often there was no money for petrol.”

The price of diesel skyrocketed from around $4.50 per gallon to $13 during some weeks of the blackout.

The 1 million-strong population of Zanzibar, which merged with the country of Tanganyika in 1964 to become the United Republic of Tanzania, relies heavily on revenue generated by the tens of thousands of tourists that come each year to visit its historic Swahili city and its white sand beaches.

So far there has been little to no statistical data released showing the effect of the blackout on Zanzibar's tourism industry but it is predicted to be enormous, as the power outage occurred during both the Christmas holiday season and Sauti za Busara, a six-day African music festival held each February.

Other effects may be less obvious but no less destructive over the longterm. One economist has found that a previous blackout in Zanzibar in 2008 caused both a rise in birth rates and a significant decrease in birth weights for babies conceived during the power crisis.

Alfredo Burlando, now a professor at University of Oregon, said the 2008 blackout was responsible for a 1.7- to 3.5-ounce reduction in birth weight among newborn babies, most likely because women whose incomes were hurt were eating less.

"People lost income; food prices were high," said Burlando.