Saturday, 10 July 2010

Is electricity a privilege or a right?

Let’s consider single mum, Victoria Johnson

Every day, the thirty one year old can be found in the same spot on the side of the road in Congo Town in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia selling pouches of water. ‘Cold water, cold water,’ she shouts as she shelters under a makeshift umbrella from the torrential rains. It’s rainy season in Liberia, making it even harder to earn a living in this West African country.

Victoria doesn’t have electricity, so she keeps her water chilled in a cool box. She needs to buy two blocks of ice to do this, reducing her profits to around just sixty cents a day.

‘I would make more money with current,’ she explains. ‘I could buy two sacks of water instead of one and would be able to keep it cold. I could make plenty money.’

It’s the same for her neighbour who sells phone cards. In the evenings, a single light bulb operated from a small battery powered pack, can be seen dangling from his multi-coloured umbrella. At night most of the city, home to more than a third of Liberia’s 3.5 million people, is cloaked in darkness. There are no street lights. Battery operated lamps shine dimly from the odd home. Children gather on street corners to do their homework. People cram into video shops to watch the latest Premier League or Serie A football game, paying around 30 cents each for generator costs.

In fact, people say many hadn’t even seen a generator before the war. Now, everyone is scrambling to raise the money to buy one. The cheapest is around US$ 100. But in a country where the average Liberian lives on less than one US dollar a day, the cost of a generator isn’t the only obstacle. A gallon of fuel is currently US$3.50. So, for the average family to have just 12 hours of electricity a day, the monthly costs can be anywhere from US$ 240 to US$ 300 – something only affordable for the moderately wealthy.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the country’s 14 years of civil war, much of Monrovia and the surrounding areas were lit up by the Liberia Electricity Corporation. There was even a rural electrification program, operating eleven diesel out stations across the country. However, the war took its toll, destroying all of the power stations and most of the power lines.

In 2006, when Africa’s first democratically elected female President came to power in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf cited electrification as one of her first goals. Four years on, just 18% of the capital is wired. Some would argue there is hope though. Brazil has reached an agreement with Liberia to build a new hydro electric plant. Plans to build a new suburb on the outskirts of the city, using technology to convert sewage into power, are going through at the moment. Off grid solar plants have been installed for Liberia’s police barracks. And what about Buchannan Renewable Energies, the company that declared it was going to make Liberia the world's first sustainable biomass-driven economy? Huge billboards, still adorn the capital, ambitiously declaring ‘BRE – Lighting up Liberia’. But more than 18 months after the groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the new carbon-neutral power station is yet to begin. Instead, the thousands of tons of woodchips made from Liberia’s old rubber trees have been exported to Europe. Not one used to generate electricity for Liberians.

But this hasn’t stopped people from taking the matter into their own hands. Walking through communities in Sinkor, Matadi and the Old Road, wires flail precariously from house to house. People are constructing their own electricity grids with makeshift leads to share the wealth of the few generators, as well as making a few extra dollars for themselves. But this has brought a whole host of new problems to the capital. Last week a 31 year old man was found dead in the Matadi area of Monrovia. He was catching frogs in the middle of the night when he grabbed what he thought was a washing line and was electrocuted to death. It was actually someone’s homemade electrical wire. The same thing happened to a 17 year old boy the week before. These aren’t cables constructed by trained electricians, they’re poorly made and strewn haphazardly from house to house, some as low as the height of a child.

So, can electricity really be considered a right? Many Liberians would argue it can. ‘I can’t come outside at night,’ says Victoria, the cold water seller. ‘It’s scary. It’s dark. I’m afraid the armed robbers will knock me down.’ For women, the dark streets pose a bigger threat than just criminals. The high rates of rape in Liberia are another reason why women are too frightened to venture out alone at night. And it’s the same story for thousands of Liberians all over the capital. The lack of electricity is holding everyone back. It makes starting up a business costly. It makes food and medicines expensive. It makes even simple things, like charging your phone a hassle. Imagine a country with seas plump with fish that could be caught and kept fresh for longer than a day, communities no longer afraid of going out after the sun has gone down, and women like Victoria able to do more out of their lives than just sell cold water for 60 cents a day. ‘I don’t always want to sell water. If I can get current I can start my own business,’ she says. ‘If I can get current, I can live. Without current I can’t live.’

Living in Liberia, I would argue electricity is a right, not a privilege.

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