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East Africa drought reaches Kenya's electricity grid

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For months, Kenyans have been watching the value of their shilling fall (hitting an all-time low on June 7 before recovering slightly) as costs of living rise (inflation passed 14 percent in June, and could hit 22 percent later this year). The causes of the problem are many, but one important factor has been the drought that is devastating the Horn of Africa. Drought has pushed food prices upward, which contributes to broader inflation. Now, with the drought dragging on, the economic effects will be felt across Kenya, starting tomorrow, in the form of electricity cuts:

Kenya Power has a 90 megawatt shortfall that will have to be taken care of through expensive emergency generators, meaning high power bills for both domestic and industrial consumers.

Hit by the current drought, the company has been forced to use the water in the power dams sparingly to stretch it to the next rains towards the end of the year.

Besides the drought, broken down generators, failure by private power suppliers to abide by their obligations and failure to install new generating machines have all contributed to the crisis.

The worst of the blackouts will be in Nairobi, Rift Valley and Western parts of the country. Coast, which relies on diesel-generated power, is not affected by the rationing.

Power blackouts are timed to ease demand at peak times for both domestic and industrial users. Industries will be particularly affected because they will have to reschedule production to non-peak hours and suffer down times.

The article quoted goes on to explain that the last such blackout, in 2000, was also due to drought. Looking ahead, blackouts may end if new generator capacity comes online, but “the power shortage could get worse if the October rains fail, since nearly half comes from hydro sources.”

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In a demonstration of how intertwined Kenya’s problems are, the approach of the blackouts caused the shilling to dip again yesterday. Inflation, too, could spike: “Analysts said the power cuts could lead to the use of more diesel or heavy fuel to produce power, which has happened in the past. They said this could push oil imports higher and raise electricity costs, worsening inflation.” (More on how blackouts could affect costs of living here).

Kenya is not the only country in Africa with electricity shortages. Tanzania, which is also affected by the current drought, has “implement[ed] daily 12-hour power cuts for an indefinite period.” Nigeria’s power shortages are legendary. But as I have argued in the case of Senegal’s power cuts, the political effects of blackouts depend partly on people’s expectations: an increase in blackouts can lead to an increase in public anger at authorities. And expectations aside, sustained blackouts can cause deep resentments anywhere. Combined with Kenya’s other economic problems, months of regular blackouts could generate some real outcry against the political leadership. Already there has been at least one small protest movement against high food and fuel prices, the “Unga Revolution” whose demonstration in Nairobi earlier this month was met with tear gas. As Kenya looks toward elections in less than 18 months, it seems economic issues will be voters’ main concern.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.