Côte d’Off

Côte d'Off

I was spoiled. Côte d’Ivoire seemed like a tropical vacation initially. Hot yes, but not insanely humid in the current season. A pleasant breeze washes across many places (especially Abidjan) in the evening and it is in general, quite pleasant. I’m here for work, but despite jetlag, I felt like I was on vacation for my first week here.

And then Tuesday hit. Without warning, in the middle of the night, the power went off and with it the water. The two systems are completely intertwined and it appears that there is no backup generator to keep the water pumping once the power stops and thus, the chateau d’eau drains quite fast leaving you in the dark and unable to wash, rinse, or flush.

Honestly, while it means stooping to heavy generalization, I should have known better. I’ve been to Kinshasa and the friend’s place I stayed at, while having a lovely, 10th floor view of Brazzaville across the Congo River, was prone to water outages. They were prepared though and had what must have been a 500L reserve tank as high up as they could place it in the apartment to gravity feed when the water went off. Tuesday, I had no such setup and while there are buckets at my place, my wife and I had neglected to fill them. Dumb was us, but filled from henceforth they shall be.

It is an easy assumption to make that while in Côte d’Ivoire, things such as water and power wouldn’t be a problem. The infrastructure is overall, very good. While something like 7,000 (presumably small) villages aren’t electrified, all the main cities and towns are properly wired and the grid, at normal times functions quite well. There is also stable internet–at home I might add. The roads are good. The Abidjan airport is very modern and even tops Kotoka in neighboring Ghana. And yes, the railroad, while only for cargo, still functions well. You would never know that the country is technically a divided one, emerged from a civil war less than a decade ago, and has the telltale angel-white SUVs of the UN Mission flitting about the countryside.

Apparently, Côte d’Ivoire has the ability to generate 0.89 gigawatts of power. Not bad, but if they were to make full usage of all the hydroelectric power available, then they would have 2 gigawatts at the ready. The issue is that currently, they’re not and on top of that, there is a large degree of electricity being exported to Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo. You can draw your own conclusions as to why this might be when there is currently a 150 megawatt deficit in the country. Naturally, it rubs me the wrong way, having lived in California during the rolling blockouts there that ended up costing the state billions of dollars in corruption waste to companies such as the now defunct Enron. This is on a smaller scale monetarily, but still the same thing.

But, what specifically happened Tuesday?

…a failure occurred on a group of central heat [no idea what this means in French] Azito. “We will be without this group until May. During this period, the country will experience a shortfall in electricity production of about 150 megawatts. So there will be disruption on the network…”

Azito is a gas-powered station in the suburbs of Abidjan. I am unclear as to what “la centrale thermique” is, but whatever the case, it isn’t functioning and thus, because of this, there isn’t enough electricity. The weird part in all of this is apparently a third turbine is being readied at this station, but they are waiting until demand is high enough to use it. It would seem that domestic demand is not only high enough, but due to it growing at 10% a year; it has exceeded any possible supply that is currently available. I can only figure that they must mean that they’re waiting for international (ie neighboring countries’) demand to be great enough to get this going, since that appears to be who they cater to.

I’ve no idea how all this plays out, but it appears that it should all get straightened out just about the same time I’m scheduled to leave the country, which seems fitting, given that I’m to blame for the troubles in the first place. It the meanwhile, I just hope that they somewhat stick to the blackout schedule and I remember to keep buckets and jerry cans full.

Until Our Independence also has a take on the situation as well.

8 Replies to “Côte d’Off”

  1. Good write up. On Friday, the World Bank chief said at the end of his trip to Abidjan that they’d be ready to look at financing an upgrade to the plant which could produce a lot more electricity at Azito without actually needing any more gas.

    My understanding is that the train to Burkina is for passengers as well.

    Hope to see you soon. Never quite worked out what IT specialists are doing in a pokey place like Abengourou.

  2. @Eric, thanks for the clarifications

    @Jonn, it would just be nice if they actually somewhat stuck to the announced outage schedule in order to plan as it takes 4-5 hours to get water back once the power does come on.

    I hear conflicting reports on the train. Not sure if it’s because it passes through the north that people say it’s unsafe and then not for passengers or what. Whatever the case, I’ll undoubtedly check out the station in Abidjan if nothing else one of these times I’m there as I have a big fascination with trains.

    Abengourou is slow, but it’s okay. Gives me time to program without distraction. If only the water would stay on long enough to supply the bakeries, things would be a bit better though. I’m going through bread withdrawal.

  3. You alluded to the real power problem – no one pays for it. Domestic electrical production across Africa is a shambles because while everyone wants electricity, the electrical companies are unable to get the majority of users to pay for it.

    Usually both the citizenry and the government find ways around paying – either by stealing outright or just refusing to pay the company or allowing it to charge certain clients. So its businesses and other countries that become the only paying clients.

    In that situation, the power company has no incentive to produce more power for local consumption – only to stall till either a foreign hard-currency buyer emerges or the government forces the utility to produce more (but usually not paying for the increase).

    See the rolling blackouts in Nigeria as a great example.

  4. Wayan, I think that this is a really, really large generalization. People in Côte d’Ivoire pay for their power and aren’t stealing. You go in to the utility company when the bills are due and there are long lines with regular people paying $60 USD or more a month.
    This shortage has come as a huge shock to folks here. In years past, there have been short term outages, but nothing like this where it spans four months with power being off 1/3 of the day. It’s anything but an issue of theft and much the issue that national elections need to happen as soon as possible and restore complete stability to the country.

  5. Hmm… then I would say CI is the exception to the usual. From Mali to Nigeria, I know firsthand that nonpayment is an issue. And for those that did pay (we did), the sky high prices made you want to steal. Our office electrical bill in Mali was the single largest expense – more than payroll or rent. Mainly because power generation costs we inordinately borne by the few who paid for power.

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