Kariba dam drops to record low 12%, and Zimbabwe, Zambia stare at a nightmare

Low rainfalls and overuse of the water by the power plants at the reservoir have left it near empty, raising the prospect they may have to shut down

WATER levels at the Kariba dam that straddles the Zambian and Zimbabwean border dropped to 12% of capacity on Jan. 18, the authority in charge of the world’s largest man-made reservoir said.

Levels fell to 477.25 metres (1,566 feet) above sea level from 482.83 metres a year earlier, data posted on the Zambezi River Authority’s website show. The minimum operating level for the hydropower dam, which normally supplies about half of each country’s electricity demand, is 475.5 metres.

Low rainfalls and overuse of the water by the power plants at the reservoir have left it near empty, raising the prospect that they may have to shut down.

An El Nino weather system rated as one of the strongest since 1950 has reduced precipitation in the dam’s catchment areas and disrupted crop production in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Flows of the Zambezi river that feeds the dam were 20% lower on Jan. 18 than a year earlier at the Victoria Falls, according to the river authority.

“The lake levels continued declining at a slow pace during the week under review due to rainfall activities around the lake,” it said.

In Zimbabwe, a  proposed 49% hike in electricity prices by Zimbabwe’s state-owned power utility, Zesa Holdings Pvt Ltd., has been rejected as unaffordable by industry bodies representing farmers, miners and manufacturers in the southern African nation.

The Chamber of Mines, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and three farmer organizations want Zesa to improve its operations before raising prices, the groups said. “Zesa needs to be restructured at all levels for cost containment that matches its reduced levels of electricity generation and the current economy,” they said in a joint statement handed to reporters Tuesday in the capital, Harare.

Zimbabwe’s economy faces its worst-ever liquidity crisis, with both the government and some private employers battling to meet wage bills and stave off company shutdowns.

The struggling power utility is meeting about half of the country’s 2,200 megawatt electricity requirement and using imports because its aging thermal plant at Hwange needs new equipment, while its Kariba hydro-power plant is confronting the record water shortage that may see production halted in February.

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