IF there is a modern day zero-to-hero story in Africa, Ethiopia is good as it gets.
Three decades ago Ethiopia was a basket case, with its people dying in the tens of thousands from famine and the country a poster child for misery.
Then in 1991 the junta led by dictator Mengistu Hailemariam were overthrown by what eventually became the current ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In recent years, Ethiopia has looked unstoppable. While it became only marginally democratic, and the EPRDF controls all the 500 seats in parliament, it has achieved near eye-popping progress almost everywhere else.
The World Bank projects that this year it will have the world’s fastest growing economy.
A kind of mini “African China”, it has pushed the same state-led capitalism, yanking secondary school enrolment up by 4,280% and building up infrastructure, including giant hydropower dams, airports, and sub-Sahara’s first light railway system, like they were going out of fashion.
Now an old foe, drought, that stared down and defeated nearly all of Africa’s big men and leaders has returned to threaten to knock the bounce of the country’s step.
Ethiopia now faces further power shortages because of low water levels at dams after a poor rainy season, an official said, following two days of sporadic cuts caused by technical faults at hydropower plants.
Unspecified issues at a substation serving Oromia region’s Gibe 1 and 2 plants, which together can produce as much as 604 megawatts, and a shutdown at the 320-megawatt Tana Beles installation in Amhara state, caused the outages on November 28-29, Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy spokesman Bezuneh Tolcha said Monday by phone.
The drought affecting the east of the country that’s left 8.2 million Ethiopians in need of food aid wasn’t related to the outages, though that may change in the coming months unless there’s non-seasonal rainfall, he said.
“There has been a shortage of rain all over country,” he said from the capital, Addis Ababa. “The dams have not collected as much water as they can collect.”
The 300-megawatt capacity Tekeze Hydropower Project in the drought-affected Tigray region is producing only 10 megawatts, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was cited as saying in an interview with The Reporter, an Addis Ababa-based newspaper, published on Nov. 28.
Two months after the end of the main rainy season, there are severe water shortages at the country’s oldest dam at Koka on the Awash River, which can generate 42 megawatts, and the 153-megawatt Melka Wakena on the Wabe Shabelle in east Oromia, Hailemariam said.
Over 94% of Ethiopia’s electricity was generated by hydropower in the last quarter of the fiscal year that ended July 7, and production increased 3.5% to 2,300 gigawatt hours compared with the year before, according to central bank data. The first two turbines from the 1,870-megawatt Gibe III plant have started producing power, Bezuneh said, without giving details.
The construction of Africa’s largest power station, the 6,000-megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is scheduled for completion in mid-2017 and it may annually produce as much as 15,860 gigawatt-hours of electricity.
The fact that 8.2 million Ethiopians need food aid, is an echo of a past Addis Ababa doesn’t want to hear, because it suggests that structurally, East Africa’s most closed economy, hasn’t moved too far away from the old days.
More broadly, that about 90% of its agriculture is rain fed, is a wider problem that Africa has failed to crack.
Growth in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation and largest coffee producer, was 8.7% last year and may be 8.1% this fiscal year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The drought threatens to crimp economic expansion in a country where 39% of output stems from agriculture, about 90% of which relies on rain. On average, only about 5% of Africa’s agriculture is irrigated.
And management of water resources is generally dismal almost everywhere in Africa.
One of the worst cases is Kariba, the world’s largest man-made dam, which is shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The two countries have all but milked the dam dry, leaving Zambia particularly hard hit.
In mid-November Kariba was just 21% full, according to the Zambezi River Authority, regulator of the dam that both countries use for power generation.
Zambia’s power deficit will widen by 42% in December as low water levels in the Kariba hobble hydropower production. The shortfall will increase to 1,000 megawatts from 700 megawatts. Output next year is projected to be lower than in 2015 or stop altogether.
This had whacked copper production, with electricity-starved mines cutting back shortly.
Already low prices for the copper that accounts for more than 70% of Zambia’s exports, a ballooning budget deficit and the lack of electricity mean the economy may grow at its slowest pace in 17 years in 2015. The kwacha has lost almost half its value against the dollar since January, making it the worst performer out of 155 currencies tracked by financial data firm Bloomberg.
While there is only so much governments can do to shape how nature behaves, its current deleterious effects are made worse by policies that pamper cities and work against the farming countrysides, driven by the fear of many governments to make land and market reforms that they see as political suicide.
This leaves many private entrepreneurs, small and big, cautious about investing in things like irrigation and other water management systems that could cushion against drought periods, because of uncertainty of title, or controlled food markets aimed at keeping keep food affordable for urban areas so that they don’t riot.
-Additional reporting by Bloomberg