DAKAR, Senegal — This bustling city is recovering from a cooking gas shortage that hit in early January, although deeper economic problems have not yet been resolved.
Despite government assurances throughout January that butane gas was on its way, the long lines of people snaking around city depots grew by the day, with people’s frustration and fatigue mounting as steadily as the columns of empty red, green and blue tanks stacked next to them.
“I’ve wasted a lot of time doing this. Too much time,” said Omar Thiaw, squinting in the afternoon sun as he waited outside the Ouakam depot in early February, one foot propped up on his two empty tanks.
Thiaw’s family of 20 had been without gas for almost a month. Like many, he had been chasing rumors all over the city of which depot might have gas, only to arrive and find out there wasn’t any or that it cost double the accepted price.
“It’s exhausting,” he said. “It’s the government’s fault. They didn’t pay, so the boats aren’t here.”
Most of Dakar's 2.4 million residents use butane gas for cooking, and it is estimated that the city now uses up to 15,000 tons per month, most of which is imported. The three and six-kilogram tanks are the most popular for household use and their prices are subsidized by the government.
The shortage began when the President Abdoulaye Wade's government fell behind on its subsidy payments, and the boats, expected for January, either didn’t come or refused to deliver their cargo once in Dakar port.
“That happens often,” said Momar Ndao, president of the Association of Senegalese Consumers (ASCOSEN). “The boat is at the port. It stays two, three, even four days, waiting while the government assembles the money to pay.”
Dakar’s port can only handle shipments of 4,000 tons at a time and the city’s gas storage facilities are inadequate, making it vulnerable to shortages, said Minister of Energy Samuel Sarr in early January.
It takes two boats per week to meet the city’s demand, meaning that one or two missed shipments can disrupt distribution for weeks, Ndao said. Officials point to Senstock, a government-supported storage facility set to begin operations in early 2009, as a potential long-term solution to butane gas shortages.
Cooking with gas is primarily an urban phenomenon in Senegal, largely a result of the government’s butanisation campaign that began in the 1970s to combat deforestation by encouraging Senegalese to use natural gas instead of charcoal or wood.
Without gas this past month, urban families were forced to return to cooking with charcoal, which is more time-consuming and expensive.
A six-kilogram butane tank costs 2,500 CFA, or about five dollars, and can last the average family up to two weeks. In comparison cooking with charcoal can cost more than two dollars a day in Dakar. Two dollars is the average daily income in Senegal.
Charcoal vendors also took advantage of the gas shortage to raise their prices, sometimes to almost double the usual amount, many Dakar residents said. As the shortage continued, even charcoal became difficult to find.
Cooking with charcoal in poorly ventilated city apartments has also been shown to cause carbon monoxide poisoning, a particular concern for families with small children.
The global surge in food and energy prices has hit Senegal hard over the past three years, and this most recent shortage was yet another aftershock in its wake.
The gas shortage is a symptom of the Wade government's difficulty in managing Senegal's economy, particularly its debt. In December, Senegal received $75.6 million in aid from the International Monetary Fund and 125 million euros from France to help pay off its hefty domestic debt backlog. But it missed a Jan. 31 payment deadline, citing a last-minute shipment of butane gas as one reason for the delay.
Shortages of daily necessities, like cooking gas, are a volatile issue in Senegal, one the government cannot afford to ignore, said Ndao of ASCOSEN. Soaring prices and shortages of staples such as rice, cooking gas, electricity and water sparked riots and demonstrations in 2008.
The IMF estimated Senegal’s internal debt to be almost $450 million, and the government has said it will pay off the remainder by Feb. 20.
The debt backlog was due in part to food and energy subsidies that cost the country more than $400 million in 2006 and 2007 after import prices skyrocketed, said Cheikh Thiam, a spokesman for the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Most of those costly subsidies have been eliminated, and the IMF called for the butane gas subsidy to be lifted in mid-2009.
Though the import price of butane gas has begun to drop, many are concerned that the consumer price could rise once the subsidy is lifted this summer, resulting in widespread protest and public outcry, Ndao explained.
“Gas is something people use everyday,” Ndao said. “What is important for us is that the prices don’t go up. That is very difficult for consumers.”
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