In his weekly letter on 4 December, President Emmerson Mnangagwa pledged to take drastic steps to address the country’s worsening energy security crisis, including approaching neighbouring states to purchase additional electricity. The country’s persistent energy challenges were greatly exacerbated by the 28 November announcement that the Kariba Dam hydroelectric power station would need to drastically reduce its production due to low water levels on the dam. As of 4 December, the hydropower plant was only generating 200 megawatts (MW) despite having an installed capacity of over 1 600MW. Kariba Dam is by far the country’s largest source of power and provides as much as half of Zimbabwe’s electricity generation. The loss of several units of the power station due to low water levels has resulted in the current situation in which Zimbabwe is only producing 605 MW of electricity to satisfy a peak power demand of 2 200MW. This has resulted in Zimbabwe experiencing as much as 19 hours of electricity blackouts a day.
Zimbabwe’s electricity grid, both generation capacity and supply, has been in decline for several years with a lack of investment in the grid making the country increasingly dependent on Kariba Dam. Even before the current drought forced a reduction of capacity at Kariba, Zimbabwe was struggling to ensure electricity provision as only an estimated 1 555 MW of the country’s installed capacity is operational, meaning that Zimbabwe was needing to import electricity via the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) primarily from South Africa, Mozambique, and Zambia. The existence of the SAPP does enable Mnangagwa to approach neighbouring states to help alleviate Zimbabwe’s ongoing crisis. However, this is likely to have limited success as there is little in the way of excess capacity available in the SAPP. This is primarily due to the ongoing power crisis in neighbouring South Africa where more than 50% of the SAPP’s capacity is located. As such, South Africa does not have any excess electricity to sell Zimbabwe and is actively seeking to secure any additional power generated in Mozambique to address its own power crisis.
The government has sought to portray the current scenario as a temporary one. Secretary for Energy and Power Development Gloria Magombo announced on 6 December that the crisis should be alleviated somewhat in the coming week. Magombo says this is due to the planned connection of a new 300MW coal-fired power plant in Hwange and bringing 60MW back online due to the completion of repairs and maintenance at other facilities.
However, this will not end the power supply crisis, nor does it provide any long-term solutions to the country’s perennial electricity shortages. Zimbabwe lacks the necessary funds to embark on a substantial energy build programme and cannot rely too heavily on its neighbouring states. Especially given that Zambia and Mozambique’s major hydroelectric power plants are also being impacted by the ongoing drought and low water levels along the Zambezi river.
The current electricity crisis is causing severe damage to Zimbabwe’s economy including to key industries which drive employment and export revenue such as mining and agriculture. The country’s Chamber of Mines has already warned that the power outages will lead to a slowdown of growth in the industry in 2023.
The impact on the agriculture sector is arguably even more concerning. The power outages are hitting the sector hard, causing disruptions to irrigation systems, greenhouses, and refrigeration. The worsening power outages will limit Zimbabwe’s farmers’ ability to use these electrical systems, which will negatively affect future crop production and increase food security concerns.
Zimbabwe’s economy is already in a tenuous state. The harm caused to the economy ‒ especially agricultural and mining operations ‒ will likely lead to increased unemployment and a reduction in the country’s export revenue. This will up pressure on Zimbabwe’s limited foreign exchange reserves and impact its ability to fund the import of essential goods such as fuel. The further deterioration of Zimbabwe’s economy will once again fuel immigration out of the country into neighbouring states as Zimbabweans seek economic stability and employment. This will, in turn, exacerbate social tensions in these destination countries ‒ most notably in South Africa which has a history of xenophobic violence.
Domestically, the power crisis will compound social and political stresses ahead of the country’s 2023 general election. The election was already expected to be marked by heightened tensions and political violence. Growing public frustration over the power crisis and Mnangagwa and the ruling Zanu-PF party’s economic mismanagement will result in the President relying more heavily on security forces and Zanu-PF toughs to oppress opposition members and voters.