19 January 2008

Load-shedding a human right violation: SAHRC

It looks as though there may soon be an independent investigation into Eskom:

IOL: Load-shedding a human right violation: SAHRC:
Eskom must give answers about the ongoing electricity crisis, the SA Human Rights Commission said on Friday.

In a statement, the SAHRC said it and the Public Protector could soon work together in an investigation to establish why Eskom had instituted power cuts to the extent it had recently.

Earlier this week, Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana sent a letter to Eskom saying he was considering investigating the power cuts because they were having a devastating effect on service delivery by government.

Eskom certainly needs to be investigated, but I'm not sure that the Human Rights Commission is the best body to do it. The way the Eskom crisis affects our constitutional rights is just one aspect of its managerial incompetence, and the other aspects need investigation too. Rather than doing its own investigation, the Human Rights Commission should throw its weight behind calls for a wider investigation, and prepare evidence to present to such an investigation.

Lots of people are blogging about the power cuts, and the Mail and Guardian is even running a special feature on Who do you blame? Unfortunately people seem to be more concerned with finding a scapegoat than a solution.

Obviously there has been poor planning on Eskom's part. One of the things an investigation would need to determine would be whether that was the fault of Eskom's planners, or whether it was the fault of top management, who failed to heed the advice of the planners. Eskom has obviously invested a lot in distribution infrastructure over the last 10-15 years, but equally obviously their generation capacity has failed to keep up.

For such incompetence heads must roll. But that is not enough. To solve the problem means that incompetent managers must be replaced by competent ones, and not merely other incompetent ones.

An investigation would also need to take account of political pressure.

Was the Eskom management under political pressure to make electricity available to as many people as possible so that all new investment in infrastructure was channelled into distribution, and not enough into generating capacity?

As I have travelled around rural areas over the last few years, I've seen many small communities that now have electricity, which did not have a few years ago. I found this encouraging evidence that the new South Africa was working. Ordinary people did not just have a right to have a say in the election of their government once every five years sor so, but their quality of life was improving. Perhaps it was, in part, a fulfilment of the ANC's election promise of "a better life for all". I didn't then suspect that failure to plan for adequate generation capacity would render such advances illusory.

The warning sign was the Coega aluminium smelter proposal. That was certainly not planned to benefit the poor or the "previously disadvantaged". That was calculated to benefit the previously and currently advantaged fat cats of Alcan:
Alcan has secured a long-term supply agreement with South-African energy firm, ESKOM Holdings Limited, for the purchase of up to 1355 MVA of electricity for the proposed 720kt greenfield COEGA aluminum smelter project, which will have a total estimated cost of US$2.7 billion. The agreement provides for a 25-year supply, set to begin in 2010.

"Alcan is engaged in successfully developing some of the most attractive smelter projects for primary aluminum production in the world, including this potential smelter in South Africa, all characterized by secure, competitively priced, long-term energy supplies, and leveraged by our world leading technology," said Dick Evans, President and Chief Executive Officer, Alcan Inc.

Think about those "competitively-priced long-term energy supplies" for a moment. Where are they going to come from? And who is going to pay for them?

Most of South Africa's electricity supply comes from coal-fired power stations, and many of them are situated in "Kragveld" -- Western Mpumalanga, where the power stations have been built at coal mines. Most of these power stations are now fairly old, and cause unnecessary pollution, which causes acid rain, which in turn damages crops and buildings and poisons fish in rivers. Coal is a fossil fuel, and therefore not a renewable energy source. What is used for smelting aluminium tomorrow will not be available for lighting, heating or cooking the day after tomorrow. When it's gone, it's gone.

When I learned geography at school, one of the things we learned was that smelting aluminium consumes huge amounts of electricity, and that was why it was cheaper to build aluminium smelters in places where cheap electricity was available, and transport the ore to there. And that is why Alcan is in Canada, because Canada has lots of water and lots of mountains which makes for cheap hydroelectricity. And hydro-electricity, unlike electricity from coal, is non-polluting and is a renewable resource.

Why, then, does Alcan now want to build a smelter in South Africa, where electricity is produced from coal, which is less efficient and normally more expensive?

Because they've been promised a subsisdy, that's why.

And who is going to pay the subsidy?

Why, you and me and all the "previously disadvantaged" who have just been connected to the electricity supply, of course. We will pay more money for less electricity, because you can bet your last cent that Alcan's load is one that will not be shed.

So yes, Eskom's poor planning does have quite a lot to do with human rights, but it also has to do with the environment, and a lot more besides. And perhaps the terms of reference of an investigating commission should be broad enough to ask why Canadian hydro-electricity has suddenly become too expensive for Alcan.

We have been told that the Coega aluminum smelter scheme will "create jobs" -- but balance that with all the jobs that will be lost because of lost productivity caused by load-shedding, when shops and offices and factories close down because there is no electricity, and people sit for hours in traffic jams because robots aren't working. Will the jobs created by the Coega scheme compensate for that?

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