Friday, January 25, 2008

US on our Power Problem: S. Africa power cuts spark World Cup fears

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- A "national electrical emergency" has been declared in South Africa where power cuts are affecting millions of people and casting doubt over plans to host the football World Cup in 2010.

The power cuts mean commuters must navigate intersections with no working traffic lights.

Authorities on Friday outlined steps to combat the problem that is stirring anxiety about the future of the largest economy in Africa.

The power has gone off across the country frequently in the last few weeks -- sometimes for up to five hours at a time -- as demand exceeds supply.

President Thabo Mbeki has admitted that his government failed to plan properly after being warned about possible shortages years ago.

The Department of Public Enterprises said power interruptions constituted a national emergency and outlined steps that could bring higher energy prices and more conservation.

"The unprecedented unplanned power outages must now be treated as a national electricity emergency situation that has to be addressed with urgent, vigorous and coordinated actions," Public Enterprise Minister Alec Erwin told journalists.

"We are viewing the next two years as being critical," he said. In two years, South Africa will hosting the World Cup finals with 300,000 visitors expected.

The South African Tourism Services Association said this week the crisis jeopardized the World Cup.

"Will people come to SA to see them if they know they will be going back to hotels and guest houses with no power? That means no hot meals, no clean laundry, no lights," said Michael Tatalias of the tourism association, according to The Associated Press.

Tourists stranded

The power cuts mean commuters navigate intersections with no working traffic lights. Restaurateurs wait in the dark for customers. And hospital administrators rush to find power for emergency rooms and intensive care units.

And the problem was cast into sharp relief when a few hundred tourists at Cape Town's Landmark Mountain were stranded in a cable car after the power went out.

The state-owned electricity supplier, Eskom, initiated rolling blackouts after concluding that "demand for electricity may exceed the available supply from time to time." Usage went up 4.3 percent last year, the Department of Public Enterprises said Friday.

The power outages have called into question the government's ability to meet its target of 6 percent growth. They also have imperiled efforts to combat a 25 percent unemployment rate.

"Unfortunately, it means job creation will not be as prevalent as intended," said Azar Jammine, chief economist at Econometrix, a South African company that provides economic analysis. "And the ability to reduce inequality between rich and poor will take much longer to achieve."

New reality

A man who sells newspapers told CNN that power outages often caused delays at the printing press. That means his product sometimes arrives too late.

"Our late edition comes very late," he said. "When it comes, customers have already gone. Sales are bad."

At a normally busy Johannesburg restaurant, the staff lit candles and lingered at lunchtime one recent day, surveying empty tables half an hour after the lights went off.

"It's been happening for the past two or three weeks -- happens in the morning, the afternoon," one employee said. "We just have to take it day by day."

South Africa has made much progress since its transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, but deep disparities remain, according to the World Bank, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries.

"South Africa is a society where deeply entrenched poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and loss of human dignity among the majority of the black population co-exist with economic wealth, scholastic achievements and a 'first world' lifestyle among the white population at par with the richest countries in Europe," the World Bank says.

New power plants are on the way, but analysts say the new capacity will be ready by 2011 at the earliest. As people adjust to the new reality, utility officials at Eskom are trying to rally their countrymen during a difficult situation.

"All South Africans need to pull together and save electricity," the utility says on its Web site, "because every little bit of saving counts."

CNN's Robyn Curnow in Johannesburg and Mark Bixler in Atlanta contributed to this report.

NVDL: South Africa: A country at war with itself, and then it shot itself in the foot.

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