13 June 2010

when the lights went out

On December 10, 2009, the lights went out across Unguja Island, the main island of Zanzibar. A power outage is usually not a noteworthy event on Zanzibar, as the island’s electricity supply comes from an aging, decrepit undersea cable from the mainland, and the mainland has plenty of power supply issues of its own. This time, though, the power didn’t come back on for 3 months.

The outage scarcely made a ripple in the international media. Thousands of tourists continued coming to the island blissfully unaware of what was happening, since the nice hotels all had diesel generators to keep things running 24/7. Only the buzzing chorus of hundreds of generators in Stone Town would have clued a well-heeled traveler in to what was going on.

For everyday Zanzibaris, however, the blackout was a calamity. It’s enormously costly to run an entire hotel on diesel, so lots of local workers were laid off—a hard blow for a place where tourism is the main industry. The layoffs happened at both small establishments struggling to survive the blackout and large resorts under pressure from headquarters to cut costs. As the blackout dragged on, many educated workers with the means to leave abandoned the island, a small-scale incident of what the development field calls “brain drain.”

At home, the biggest problem was not the lack of electricity but the lack of running water as the island’s water pumps stopped working. Open any World Bank or UN report about water, and you’re likely to read about the enormous burden that gathering water places on people, especially women, in areas without an adequate water supply. In a sense, the blackout turned back the clock on Zanzibar’s economic development. It forced people to divert time, energy, and resources that they otherwise could have spent working or caring for their children to figuring out how to get enough water for basic needs.

The impact on people’s health, naturally, was awful. Communities around the island suffered deadly outbreaks of cholera. A study of an earlier, month-long blackout on Zanzibar found that the blackout significantly reduced birth weights (a key marker of infant health and nutrition). We still don’t know exactly what the impact of the long blackout will be, since the youngest babies who were in utero for the blackout still have not been born, but it seems likely that this generation of children will suffer lifelong problems because they were unlucky enough to pass that critical window of development in a time of crisis. Another issue I heard about over and over again was stress. Mental health gets hardly any attention in development circles—heck, we hardly consider it a “real” problem in the rich countries. But the stress of the layoffs, the disease, the lack of water, and the uncertainty of when it would all end will probably affect many Zanzibaris for a long time to come.

There are plans in the works to help prevent similar blackouts in the future, from a new undersea cable to large-scale public generators to keep electricity flowing to the grid. I also got the sense that the blackout has sparked interest in renewable energy sources on the island, which would be one of the best possible legacies of this tragedy. For the time being, however, there is little standing in the way of a repeat of Zanzibar’s awful season in the dark.

No comments: