May 9, 2007 / 8:26 AM / 11 years ago

Zimbabwe heads for dark days as power cuts loom

HARARE (Reuters) - Crisis-weary Zimbabweans braced for darker days on Wednesday after President Robert Mugabe’s government announced 20-hour daily electricity cuts for households across the country.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe address his supporters during the country's 27th Independence anniversary at Rufaro stadium in Harare, April 18, 2007. Crisis-weary Zimbabweans braced for darker days on Wednesday after Mugabe's government announced 20-hour daily electricity cuts for households across the country. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The government has said the cuts will allow supplies to be shifted to irrigate the crucial winter wheat crop amid persistent food shortages.

The southern African country has already been experiencing frequent power cuts due to the declining capacity of its aging power plants, which have seen very little new investment as the country battles severe foreign currency shortages.

Several Harare suburbs have also endured lengthy periods without water, some dry for as long as three weeks, as the eight-year-old economic crisis takes its toll on municipal and utility services.

“We might as well be living in the rural areas,” Rudo Gwaunza, a housewife, told Reuters. “But although there’s no electricity there, you know where to find the water. Here we are having to do without both.”

The extended power cuts by the state-run power utility Zesa Holdings also mean more financial woes for residents battling with the highest inflation rate in the world, at 2,200 percent.

“This is in no way a surprise, Zesa does not follow its load-shedding timetable anyway. But the longer period will drive prices for firewood and candles up and these items are already quite expensive,” said Francis Chakona, a newspaper vendor who works in central Harare but lives in the poor working class township of Glen View.

PRODUCTION COSTS

The cuts are intended to spare urban business districts, but many shops and businesses in residential areas could still feel the impact.

Mines and factories have also been hit hard by regular power outages, which have caused a decline in production and contributed to an economic crisis and escalating political tensions over Mugabe’s 27-year rule.

Up to $2 billion is required to install new equipment and expand production at the country’s two main power plants in Hwange and Kariba to meet increased industrial and domestic demand, officials say.

A government notice published in the state media said Zesa would give priority to wheat farmers, who need electricity for irrigation, while domestic use across the country will be restricted to just four hours a day.

Zesa spokesman James Maridadi said the power rationing program was expected to be enforced with immediate effect and would be in place for three months when demand for power is no longer at its peak.

“A window period between 2100 hours through to 1700 hours the following day, will be created to allow uninterrupted power supply to support the wheat irrigation activities,” the ministries of agriculture and energy said in a joint statement.

“The four-hour period 1700 hours to 2100 hours evening peak is reserved to allow the domestic sector to carry out their normal household chores.”

The ministries said the move was part of government efforts to increase wheat production this winter season.

Mugabe’s government has announced plans to import maize after another poor agriculture season it blames on the drought and the central bank has set up a fund to finance the programme.

Apart from erratic power supplies, Zimbabweans have to cope with persistent food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is blamed on Mugabe’s controversial policies, such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms to resettle blacks.

Mugabe, however, denies mismanaging the economy and blames Western sanctions.

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