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When all blame goes to Shire River

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The Shire River is the only outlet of Lake Malawi that stretches for about 402 kilometres from Samama Village in Mangochi into the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

From Samama, the upper part of the river runs approximately 18 kilometres before it enters Lake Malombe, from where it peacefully meanders for another long distance into Zambezi River.

As the river flows from Mangochi to Mozambique, it passes through Machinga, Balaka, Mwanza Chikwawa and Nsanje, providing a source of living to a lot of Malawians from these districts.

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In some cases, the river provide painful memories to such people who lost their loved ones or others living with scars as a result of crocodile attacks along the river.

But, on a larger scale, Shire has been source of many good things which the country boasts of. The energy sector which drives every country’s economy has been a major beneficiary of the river through provision of water for electricity generation.

Despite having only 10 percent of the country’s population connected to the electricity, the river, being source of electricity generation, has been an inspiration to millions of Malawians that are either connected or not connected to the electricity.

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But with the recent persistent power interruption, the Shire River has all of a sudden become a blight, as almost anyone is blaming the river for not providing Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) with enough water to generate electricity.

Countless times within a year, officials from Escom release press statements justifying how shallow or deep the water in the Shire River has affected electricity generation, thereby supply in the country.

They blame the river when the water levels are low and they do the same when the levels increase as the river carries with it weeds that damages machinery. All these times, the river continues to flow innocently and silently into Zambezi.

For 64-year-old Agnes Juwawo of Kaluma Village, Traditional Authority Jalasi in Mangochi, a mother of eight, solution to erratic power supply in the country is the Shire’s high water levels.

“Initially, when we go to a maize mill and find that there is no electricity, we used to blame government and Escom for failure to provide electricity constantly. We were living in the dark, not knowing what was causing the blackouts,” Juwawo says.

Though various awareness campaigns on the radio, Juwawo says she now knows that the problem to the country’s unreliable power supply is because of the levels of water in the Shire River. A river that has been providing electricity to the country for a long time, perhaps since the country knew about electricity.

Precise is even how locals such as Juwawo explains the basic relationship among sedimentation, siltation and electricity generation at Nkula Hydropower Station.

One can easily see the passion in locals’ eyes for the need to stop relentless electricity blackouts through reduction of sediments in the Shire. But none seem to come to the defence of the river as Shire does not choose to be silted. But Malawians do, as Escom’s Senior Power Station Manager Steven Kaira says.

He says the corporation started experiencing the problem of silting of the river immediately after the country embraced the multiparty system of government in the 1990’s, meaning that Escom knew about siltation some 20 years ago.

“When we attained democracy, people started indulging in more unlawful environmental practices, which in the long term has been increasing the amount of silt in the Shire River,” says Kaira, when Millennium Challenge Account Malawi (MCA-Malawi) took journalists on a tour to appreciate the activities being done to solve the problem of intermittent power supply.

Apart from reducing the levels of water in the river, Kaira says the silt is also eating into the metals at the country’s power plants, thereby increasing costs and time the corporation spends to maintain the power stations.

These and many other factors have successfully incapacitated generation of electricity to a mere 165 megawatts from the possible installed capacity of 351 megawatts, a situation that is said to be contributing to the frequent power outages.

Going forward, the corporation is hoping that the rehabilitation of the Nkula A Hydropower Station will help add to its grid about 12 megawatts, enough power to service its Lilongwe customers.

“Nkula A plant was constructed in 1964 and since then, there has been no major rehabilitation. Its spare parts are also scarce, which makes it difficult to maintain it. We hope that the modernisation of the plant will reduce the costs of the maintenance as well as make it easy for us to maintain it because we will have the spare parts readily available,” Kaira says.

But a visit to Nkula tells you that the outdated hydro plant is not the major challenge for Escom. The plant’s reservoir intake which was initially at two million cubic litres currently stands one million cubic litres. Weeds have reduced the capacity of the reservoir to almost half.

Through MCA-Malawi, the US Government has allocated about $27 million to Escom so that it reform its operations. Among others, the funds will also cater for purchasing of dredging machines and some weed-removing equipment to help Escom recover its water reservoirs so that the corporation can utilise the available water in the Shire River.

Escom estimates that it could dredge sediments for roughly 20 years and not keep up with the amount of soil being carried down from the upper streams to its generation plants if there is no change in farming habits for people living on the upper shire.

In 2010, Escom made a loss of approximately $1 million on weed management and sediment control. Even after this expenditure, an MCC-funded study that same year projected that Escom would have to invest an additional $13.7 million in capital costs and incur an additional $470,000 in annual operating expenses to effectively manage the combined weed and sediment issues.

The sad reality is that the weed and sediment problem will only worsen with continued deforestation driven by agricultural expansion and charcoal production, something which the Shire River has no control of.

Given Malawi’s high population density and the proliferation of unsustainable land-use practices that make soil more susceptible to erosion such as slash-and-burn agriculture, it is likely that more and more sediment will be flushed into the Shire River, creating additional challenges for these critical hydroelectric plants.

Dredging sediment at dam is, therefore, like treating the symptom of excess soil erosion but it does not directly address the long-term causes of the problem, which is the land-use change driven by poverty.

According to Peter Makwina, MCA’s Environmental and Social Performance Director, Malawi’s current and future energy demands cannot be met unless the country simultaneously mitigates both short- and longer-term threats to the watershed in the Shire River.

“An effective intervention must address both immediate concerns such as dredging at dam sites to allow for continued generation of hydropower as well as long-term concerns such as identifying interventions that reverse land degradation and improve livelihoods that is why we are also advocating behaviour change for people in the upper streams,” Makwinja says.

He says based on this understanding, MCC’s support to Malawi’s energy sector goes beyond providing infrastructure for improved electricity generation, transmission and distribution. It also includes upstream natural resource management activities in priority catchments to protect the sustainability of hydropower investments and reduce the sedimentation and erosion that are leading to costly electricity outages.

“As a long-term solution, we are funding activities that will enable farmers to use land more sustainably and, in turn, reduce soil erosion and surface water runoff into the Shire River which is a key to the success of these sustainable land management and ecosystem restoration efforts in the watershed,” he says.

As the country continues to search for a long-term solution to the country’s intermittent power supply, the Shire, though blameless, will continue flowing peacefully down to Zambezi River, leaving behind a lot of people blaming it for not being kind enough to Escom.

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