A visit to Botswana

The habit of bargaining has become so engrained that statements of shortage are quite commonly read as bargaining positions leading to a price hike, rather than that you literally can’t have any. But we are now in a time when the reality of growing shortages, and in more than just crude oil, is going to start imposing such a disconcerting awareness.

I was in Botswana the other week, and in two earlier posts I had mentioned the problems that that country suddenly encountered when the source for 75% of its electric power – Eskom of South Africa – started to use it as a load-sheddable part of its distribution chain. It has since given Botswana the amounts that it can expect over the next four years. From a supply of 410 MW in 2007; it will get 350 MW in 2008; 250 MW in 2009; and 150 MW in 2010 through 2012. While the country has in-house generation, it decided some time ago that it was less costly to import power than to increase internal supply. Now it will take some time to create that internal power, from coal, of which the country has a more than adequate supply. The expansion of the current plant, already in process, will not occur until 2010 , and was planned to only add 120 MW, less by then, than the lost imports. And current growth in demand has been at 5.6% per annum. It does not help that:

It has also emerged that at the beginning of this year, the desperate BPC signed a no guarantees contract that allows Eskom to cut power supplies to Botswana within as little as ten minutes notice.

Flying into Gaborone, the capital, from Johannesburg, after reading the articles that had lead to the earlier pieces, I had expected to see that there would be some impact on behavior. But, crossing the veldt, there were lace points of light that reached out as long as I could see the ground. Once landed the streets were lit, and gas stations were running normally (at about $1 a liter). Going into meetings the following morning, it seemed to have been, at that scale, an irritant. We continued to meet, and then the lights went out, and the air conditioner shut off.

There were a couple of remarks, and we continued with the meeting (which wasn't about this), and about fifteen minutes later power came back on. There is no sense, from those I talked to, as to when each outage will occur, nor how long it will last. And what is an inconvenience in a discussion, becomes much worse, for a business. Longer outages have led to spoiled meat at restaurants and it is perhaps not surprising that virtually all the meals we had were served as buffets.

The problem was foreseen, and, as with the current world oil situation, there were voices that expressed concern. But while demand continued to grow, supply did not. Maintenance was not adequate, and there has been a continuing economic crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe which has led to their power stations shutting down, and power distribution collapsing.

The nation was sitting at the start of what looks to be a very promising future. As commodity prices rise it has the world’s second largest diamond mine as well as other, increasingly valuable minerals. The second largest industry is tourism, with beef production running third (it is the size of Texas, but has perhaps a sixth the size of that herd). Plans were well underway to increase electrification of villages, which had been only at around 12% toward universal access to power by 2016. Unfortunately, due in part to lack of training, use of solar power has (pdf) not been as successful as had been hoped. And now, not only is there no new power to meet these future needs, there is not enough even for today.

So the Power Company has been scrambling to find answers wherever they can. Obviously there are some conservation measures, which include

replacement of incandescent lamps, which consume a lot of power. The director of transmission at BPC, Edward Rugoyi said the project is aimed at reducing power consumption to 30 MW by June this year.
Implementation will cost the corporation at least P20 million. Another initiative BPC will look at is load shifting, where the organisation will control domestic water heating by switching off water geysers during the peak period by using controls installed in their systems. Rugoyi said the exercise will cost P60 million and it is planned for May 2009. (The currency is the Pula, at about 6 to the dollar ). They are coming out of summer, so air conditioning will not be an immediate burden, though it can get cool in the winter, that is still some months away.

Morupule Power Plant

For the longer term, the plan is to increase power from the Morupule Power Plant, to a new level of 300 MW , helped by the Chinese. tenders have been accepted to expand the Morupule plant to 300 MW by 2010, with incentives for fast-tracking. In the more immediate short term, Botswana has agreed to work with Zimbabwe in restoring and operating the currently dysfunctional power station at Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, with countries sharing 50:50 in the power produced from the coal that Botswana will supply. This will require new transmission lines.

New Power Transmission Lines near the Zimbabwean border in Botswana

In short – depending on how successful the arrangement with Zimbabwe turns out to be, Botwsana may have less than a year of discomfort, and, if the Chinese can perform to schedule, no more than a couple before becoming sufficiently independent of outside power supply that it can return to its planned progress forward. Much of that progress will likely build on the growth of the local mining industry, which is fairly energy dependent (as the South Africans are now well aware). Thus the plan is to continue to increase the size of the Moruplule plant with another 300 MW, once the first phase is completed.

I enjoyed the visit, brief though it was, everyone was very friendly, the food was good, as was the accommodation and the one road I traveled (Gaborone to Francistown) quite fast, though – this being cattle country - I saw no wild animals (they are further north and west). But I got the feeling the general public did not fully understand the power situation, nor how close to a cliff they are currently walking. For if the arrangements with Zimbabwe don’t work out, and the new power construction is delayed, then the switches on the wall won’t work any longer.

Thanks, HO, for a most informative report. We benefit from this more fine-grained analysis of how PO is playing out around the world, both at a country level (like your post) or even moreso (IMHO) with finer-grained ethnographic accounts of the effects on the everyday lives of ordinary people...particularly from sub-Saharan Africa which is a region many of us think will bear the brunt of PO. Chris Vernon's post from Senegal some months ago pointed in the direction you've taken here. We need more of this middle-level, case study sort of reporting.

TOD seems too often to veer between macro-analysis of trends (if not outright dataless projections), useful as they may be, and anecdotal "here's what's going on in my (typically US or UK) neighborhood" reports. Your post is as refreshing as it is sobering.


"TOD seems too often to veer between macro-analysis of trends (if not outright dataless projections), useful as they may be, and anecdotal "here's what's going on in my (typically US or UK) neighborhood" reports."

This is possibly affected by the TOD travel budget, which when I last checked was $0.00.

Ideally we'd have accounts from people in each country or region. Unfortunately the areas first affected by fossil fuel depletion are also the areas lacking internet access.

My wife was on the phone to her family in Odessa, the Ukraine last night. They report that petrol (gas) rationing has now been put in place- fuel can only be bought with ration tokens. Rampant food inflation is also being observed, such that the local market prices, for the like of cucumbers is doubling from one day to the next.

Thanks HO. I've been to Africa many times and Botswana twice. Safaris and traveling in an earlier era (for me). I have very fond memories of the people and the landscape of that country - Kalahari desert and the salt pans, the Okavango Delta, and its intricate water veins that annually bring life to the amazing animals that reside there (the "pula" you mention is their currency is also the word for 'water'.)

I often wonder what peak oil will do for those species that don't have a say, especially in non-forgiving climates like the Kalahari. Certainly expensive safaris and tourism will drop off and that may alleviate pressure on wildlife...but what if we go back down the energy quality ladder in the direction of coal and wood as oil and gas deplete, thus further altering climate patterns. The migrations and annual birth cycles in Africa are very susceptible to 3 standard deviation weather events, which it seems these days are becoming more common. Do power outages mean more bushmeat? I doubt it but one never knows.

Botswana is a beautiful country - but the world is not so small anymore.

Thanks for the report. On the macro level we like to see these smooth curves. The reality is somewhere along that nice smooth curve shortages develop. Your report makes clear what I fear which are persistent shortages that wreak havoc from coupling effects.

You talked about meat going bad. But to mime a story about a horseshoe.

For the lack of a power plant the electricity did fail.
For a lack of electricity the butchers meat rotted.
For the lack of meat the butchers business failed.
For the lack of money the butchers family left.
For the lack of a family the butcher shot the president.
For the lack of a president the country went to war.
For losing the war the country rich in resources was raped and left to starve.

The point is shortages send out shock waves that propagate through and destabilize society.

The link to the pdf about solar power not being successful is broken.

I have colleagues who are leaving this region for other regions because of daily power blackouts. This has not been reported in the US news networks and is an upcoming reflection of the energy, water, and climate change emergencies we now face as they impact our societal systems.

Interesting report--thanks.

I think some people in Europe are aware of these developments - Climate change 'threatens' Europe's energy resources

Climate change poses serious security risks for the European Union, ranging from sharper competition for global energy resources to the arrival of numerous "environmental migrants", warns a report prepared for an EU summit this week.
It says the EU must expect a substantial increase in the number of migrants attempting to enter the EU, because millions of people will flee poverty, political and ethnic conflicts, ill health and environmental damage in other parts of the planet, especially Africa.

What are the vocations of those leaving ?

There is some indication here . The historic relationships have been with South Africa but there has been a growing willingness in the country to look to a broader community. Obviously there has been some linkage to the UK for historic reasons, but with increasing globalization and with China, in particular, being more diligent in finding potential future fuel sources and industrial opportunities, those older relationships are under increasing challenge. Recent major investments in the country have included some from Russia, but the market for technically competent individuals in the global marketplace is such that without stronger incentives it may become more difficult for countries such as Botswana to retain their best and brightest.

Thanks, it should be fixed


THanks for a very interesting story. It is interesting to hear how things work out in practice. It was surprising how little impact the problems were having on the people -- not unlike the US, which seems to be unaware of peak oil issues; and not unlike the UK, that doesn't seem to realize how close to the edge it is with natural gas.