“Dumsor” is literally “off-on” and refers to the “scheduled” load shedding that has been instituted to help Ghana “temporarily” manage a perfect storm of issues related to energy generation and distribution. The roots of the crisis go deep, and layer after layer of technical, social, political, geopolitical turmoil have created a situation that will take years to fully resolve.
The web of interrelated issues includes dropping oil prices, volatile foreign exchange, poor management and maintenance of the grid infrastructure, aging equipment, the rupturing of the West African gas pipeline near Takoradi, low water levels in the two main hydroelectric reservoirs, rapidly increasing year-on-year demand, and energy theft. The government owes money to the distribution company, Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), which owes money to the generating authority, Volta River Authority (VRA), which owes money to the Ghana Natural Gas Company which runs the Atuabo Gas Processing Plant, and owes money to the West African Pipeline Co, which ships the natural gas from Nigeria. The ECG has kept electricity prices low for the past several decades for social and political reasons, but still has not been able to collect about $1.6billion from the government. Meanwhile, installed generating capacity has struggled to keep up with rapidly growing demand.
One would think this crisis would be a golden opportunity to usher in a new era of renewable energy sources, distributed micro-generation, and the de-bureaucratizing and depoliticizing of the electricity system, but this does not appear to be the case. Most Ghanaians who can afford to, have bought gas or diesel generators to supplement the variable grid power. This is mainly thought of as a last ditch, temporary measure to cope with the situation for a few more months until the crisis subsides. As with people everywhere, Ghanaian’s appetite for making the long-term, capital intensive decision to install a solar power system is fairly low. It is not that people do not understand the advantages of doing so, but when you are scrapping together just enough cash to eat and pay the rest of the bills, it is much easier just to buy a few litres of petrol at a time and try to get by.
Even on a large scale, the general direction Ghana has taken is to double-down on natural gas, light crude and other non-renewable sources. These are proven, low-risk technologies that are relatively cheap and dependable. There are bright spots and small initiatives to convert portions of the supply to renewable sources, but so far there is no evidence of a concerted effort to make a long-term change. The international community has not done much to promote or support a shift in energy policy as a whole and seems to be content with the status quo. Turkey is sending over two 225MW Karpowerships, (offshore power barges), to supplement generation which should be complete in the next month or so. Meanwhile, USAID is promoting its Gas Action Plan and Gas Master Plan to encourage more domestic production of natural gas, as well as pushing for the privatization of the ECG.
The Dumsor Report, released on August 6, is a great, data-backed analysis of the current electricity crisis, breaking down Dum and Sor for different neighbourhoods across Accra. It is clear from the data that this issue goes so much deeper than just scarcity or the logistical hurdles of electricity distribution. It touches on inequality, the allocation of a scarce basic resource, the abuses of public institutions for personal gain, and the way people relate to and think about energy. As they say in the report, “Do you have lights?” has replaced “Hello” in the Ghanaian vernacular and electricity is discussed with the same aura and wonder as the weather.
These issues permeate and bear upon the entire psyche of the country, undermining not only direct economic activity but also social and cultural norms and practices. The draining psychological effect of living under the Democlesian sword of unpredictable blackouts is hard for an outsider to comprehend. The exuberant shouts of joy in the streets when the lights turn on, the groans and expletives when it unexpectedly turns back off, the insipid, creeping fear and guilt of knowing that you’ve-had-lights-for-so-long-now-that-something-surely-must-be-wrong-and-that-your-good-fortune-can-only-mean-you-will-be-rewarded-with-an-extended-outage, take their toll in surprising ways.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her New York Times piece about the situation in Nigeria, “I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered. What greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn?” Ghanaian MC, Sarkodie, says in his song Dumsor, “I think we deserve a break down and we want to understand what’s happening. What are you guys doing?” Dumsor has also spawned Youtube videos, a new Wikipedia article, a special dumsor flash light app for Android, dances, vigils, and endless political bickering between the country’s two main political parties.
This issue represents an example of something that I’ve seen repeated over and over again: a complex development issue that defies a simple story. You cannot just say “ECG is corrupt and the New Democratic Party (NDC), currently in power, is the cause”. You cannot just say “the World Bank and the IMF, forced Ghana to privatize its electricity generation in the 90s, and this is the cause”. You cannot just say, “Ghana should invest in renewables”, or “Ghana needs a Gas Action Plan”. No one explanation will suffice and no one solution will make everything go away.
Living in Ghana for the past two years, I’ve been relatively privileged with my access to electricity. Where I lived in Tamale, I was near the water pumping station, so there was near constant power. Where I am living in Accra, the compound has a generator for a few hours per night. I am also able to sit in coffee shops, plug-in my laptop at restaurants, and roam freely around the city in search of the elusive Sor. What has been most eye-opening is just how much electricity I need to survive. Basically about 5hrs of light at night, a few hours throughout the day to charge my phone and laptop, and occasionally enough to run a small fan and I’m satisfied.
It is hard to know how dumsor will evolve and what the next few months will bring, but people are definitely working hard to solve these issues, citizens are active and engaged in debate about what to do and most are relatively good-humoured and optimistic that Ghana can overcome this set back and get back on track. It’s the weekend, so I should have power for at least 24hrs, life’s good!