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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What we don’t know about Dowans

Not so long ago Africa was overtly referred to as the ‘Dark Continent’. Now it is only covertly called so. Not least because of satellite images which shows it as lacking lights, that is, electricity, at night.

In fact when you look at those images you will see pockets of lights in those places, such as South Africa, that are considered to be, ‘exceptionally’, the ‘Europe of Africa’. If you happen to travel by a plane between Europe and Africa at night that contrast hits you hard. Oh, so, we are really in the dark.

‘Kipanya’, the Cartoonist, aptly captured this situation in the wake of the controversy over a quest to buy Dowans’ power generating plant. Kipanya is sitting outside a mud hut. He is listening to a battery radio. ‘Its better to stay in darkness rather than buy Dowans’ plant’, Kipanya hears the debate rage on.

‘The way they talk’, snap Kipanya out in the dark, ‘is as if the whole country has electricity.’ Indeed, as the latest ‘Household Budget Survey 2007’ notes, only 12 percent of the households are connected to – let alone supplied with – electricity. Here we are talking of nearly 9 million people out of 43 million.

In a way Kipanya’s cartoon is also a subtle attack on the recent statement made by the Tanzania Electric Supply Company’s (Tanesco) Managing Director, Dr. Idris Rashidi. The Director was quoted in the media as saying Tanesco has officially withdrawn its intention to buy Dowans’ plant, decrying political interference. However, he cautioned, the withdrawal might not be without dire consequences.

Said he: “Tanzanians will make their own judgments if the country is thrown into darkness again, when hospitals will not be offering services, industrial production will be crippled and students fail to study because we failed to act” (The Citizen 7 March 2009). Surely, as Kipanya insinuates, all these things have been happening to the majority of the citizenry, in varying intensity, since Independence.

I, for one, detest the politicization of professionalism. But what is so professional about a political decision to buy Dowans’ plant? I say ‘political’ because indeed politics is about the distribution – and exercise – of powers and resources. As such it is so important to separate the professional wheat from the political chaff in regard to the Dowans saga, that is, the national electricity grid saga since Uhuru.

Perhaps the best place to start this separation is in the annals of the meeting between the Parliamentary Committee for Public Accounts chaired by the fiery MP, Zitto Kabwe, and Tanesco. But, alas, we only have scanty details of all the ‘professional’ information that were disclosed therein. So, instead of bothering with what we don’t know, let us be a bit more historical and go back to the very beginning.

In ‘Africa’s Winds of Change: Memoirs of an International Tanzanian’, the former Minister responsible for Energy, Al Noor Kassum, documents how we ended up at the mercy of Dowans. I take the liberty to say so because it is a documentary of how we forfeited, nay, suspended an initiative that could provide us with a total capacity of 2,100 MW, 21 times more than the 100 MW from Dowans.

That initiative is what came to be known as the Stiegler’s Gorge Power Project. The gorge is located on the Rufiji River. According to Kassum, in 1979 they proposed to use it to generate electricity. To that end Halfslund/Norplan of Norway were consulted to prepare a feasibility study for the project.

It is this study, financed by the Norwegian government, that showed the said grand capacity then thus spaced over four phases: “At the end of Phase I (1990-95) the capacity would be 300 MW; at the end of Phase II (1995-2005) it would be 900 MW; at the end of Phases III and IV (2005-15) it would be 2,1000 MW. Thus, the capacity could be stepped up as demand increased over time. This would also spread the total cost over a longer period.”

Interestingly, these consultants estimated that the investment cost for all these phases would be USD 1,382 million - a mere two times the cost of Dowans’ plant in non real terms. They also noted that it could meet all of Tanzania’s projected power needs at least until 2010. Yes, indeed, until next year.

“Unfortunately”, laments Kassum, “we were unable to obtain financing for the project.” “Instead”, he further laments, “the Mtera Dam was built for half the cost of Stiegler’s Gorge project but supplied only 10 percent of the power that the other project would have made available.”

His ‘in hindsight lamentations’ doesn’t end there. Tanesco, he laments nostalgically, “spent almost the same amount that the Stiegler’s Gorge project would have cost on constructing many small power-generation plants that used fuel to produce electricity.” So, after all, we didn’t start thinking small now.

“Later”, Kassum winds up his regrets, “Mwalimu Nyerere told me it had been a mistake not to go ahead with the Stiegler’s Gorge project. Had the money spent on those power stations be used on the Stiegler’s Gorge project, electricity could have been supplied through cables to the whole country and we would not have the frequent power shortages that continue to plague Tanzania today.”

Full of hope, Kassum sums up by saying the “good news is that the current Government has announced its intention to revive the Stiegler’s Gorge project”. That was 2007. Today, two years later, in 2009, the scanty information we can gather from the meeting between Dr. Idris Rashidi and Hon. Zitto Kabwe’s teams is that Stiegler’s Gorge project among other projects have been delayed due to lack of funds etc.

It is the same old story. ‘We are poor’. ‘Our government doesn’t have the money.’ In such a context one can have the audacity to even think of Dowans’ 100 MW a year after the Richmondgate. All this implies that there is an urgent need to stop majoring in the minor. Let us now deal with what we know.

If we know so much about Richmond and its alleged twin Dowans then we would answer the rhetorical question that was posed by the then Prime Minister during his forced resignation because of all this electricity saga: ‘Put it on the table who is Richmond?’ Yes, put it on the table, who is Dowans?

© Chambi Chachage - The Citizen 10 March 2009

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