Zanzibar's three-month blackout

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.

Low birth weights are associated with a higher rate of growth deficiencies, learning disabilities and childhood death.

"The 2010 blackout was certainly worse," said Burlando. "Based on that, my prediction is the following: We'll see lower than expected birth weights this time around, too. Moreover, I suspect we will see lower birth weights as soon as now. Even very pregnant women might have had a hard time securing enough food."

The source of Zanzibar's power crisis is the 40-year-old undersea cable connecting it to the national grid on the Tanzanian mainland 23 miles away. The cable was built with Norwegian financing but passed its expiration date years ago and has been ill-maintained, according to experts.

The situation is indicative of the larger energy crisis in Tanzania as a whole. Access to electricity is just 10 percent nationwide with a mere 2 percent of the population able to access power in rural areas, according to the World Bank. Power outages are weekly if not daily events.

"Tanzania is seriously under-invested and has been for a long time in modern energy," said John McIntire, country director of the World Bank for Tanzania.

For Zanzibar, the recent three-month blackout was a repeat nightmare. In 2008 the undersea cable ruptured during one of the year's most anticipated soccer matches between Zanzibar's two favorite soccer teams: Manchester United and Chelsea.

Just minutes before half-time, the island was plunged into darkness causing widespread suspicion that staff at the Zanzibar Electricity Corporation were too busy watching the game to pay attention to a power surge originating on the mainland and prevent the disaster.

The resulting month-long blackout was the longest on record and required a technician and mechanical parts to be flown in from Norway to fix the problem. Then on Dec. 10, 2009, the cable ruptured again.

After three months of struggling to charge mobile phones and living without running water, residents are desperately hoping that a new submarine cable funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation will be completed by 2013 as reported. But some expressed their anger that they remain dependent on aid to solve the electricity crisis.

"If the country was able to help itself, the problem would have dissolved a long time ago,”
said one resident, who did not wish to be named. “It’s because we depend on foreign aid that it’s taken so long."