RANGOON — Burma’s state-run newspapers belatedly reported on Sunday, April 8, that the electrical power supply for the whole country was being severely rationed starting from April 2.
Quoting a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Electrical Power No. 2, the media reported that the blackouts were due to a surge in national power consumption during the summer.
The news appeared in state-run dailies Kyay Mone and Myanma Alin, but was not reported in government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar.
Of course, none of this was news to people in Rangoon and Mandalay who had endured half-day power cuts since April 2, the day after Burma’s landmark by-election.
Those in rural areas were less affected—mostly because they not do not receive electricity from the government anyway (less than 25 percent of Burma’s more than 60 million people are hooked up to the national grid).
The state media said that the nation’s current generating capacity of 1,529 megawatts (MW) could not fulfill the demand, which stands at 1,720 MW, and that the rationing measures were “a last resort” to distribute electricity alternately to regions that had been divided into three groups.
According to the official roster of electrical power availability described in the newspapers, the first and second groups will have power from 7 am to 12 noon while the electricity for the third group will be off. Power will then be accorded to two of the groups from 12 to 5 pm, while a third group remains without.
The reports claimed that there will be no nighttime power shortage in Rangoon, the country’s largest city with more than 7 million people, but electricity in the rest of the country will be cut.
“We will light up the whole of Rangoon every night, starting from this evening [April 6], using reserved electricity,” Kyay Mone quoted Aung Khaing, the president for Rangoon Electricity Supply Board (RESB), as saying.
The Burmese state-run daily said the electricity demand for the former capital is currently 800 MW per annum, a 35.5 percent increase over last year, and nearly 50 percent of the nation’s total.
The move was not unexpected though. The RESB announced last month that electricity would soon be rationed, and that the power cuts would last until July.
Despite enjoying an almost uninterrupted flow of power for the past year or so, electricity was previously rationed in the main cities to around 12 hours a day during the hot season, from April to July, when air-conditioners are more frequently used.
The severe power cuts come at a time when Burma is the focus of international attention with foreign investors closely watching the country’s ongoing political reforms and unfolding business opportunities.
“The power cuts will surely affect the country’s development,” said retired economics professor Maw Than. “No matter how politically stable a country is, a power shortage means it has poor infrastructure. It could repel foreign investment and damage the country’s image.”
The Burmese population has been accustomed to blackouts and power rationing since the late 90s, and many people have taken the matter into their own hands by coming up with alternative sources of power.
In the business hub of Rangoon, many small firms rely on their own generators for electricity, paying more than $5 per gallon for petrol or diesel.
“If the electricity is off, I have to use three gallons of diesel every day,” said an Internet café owner as he stood beside his humming 25KW/ 25KVA generator.
Aung Ko Min, a photocopier shop owner in Rangoon, pointed out that the RESB had recently raised electricity costs from 25 kyat per unit to 35 for domestic use, and 75 kyat for business purposes. “I feel ripped off,” he said.
In Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay, the power supply has also been rationed.
“Six hours on, six hours off,” said graphic designer Thuyein. “Naturally, generators are in high demand. But if you want a generator, you have to wait. If you complain about the long waiting list, your order would be ignored. When I ordered one for my office, I was told that it wouldn’t be delivered until the second week of May. I said ‘yes’ for I had no other choice.”
Rumor in the former capital has it that the power cuts are a thinly veiled pretext to resume the construction of the Chinese-led Myitsone hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River. The megadam project, which was scheduled to produce some 3,600 to 6,000 MW of electricity, was suspended by President Thein Sein last year after public protests.
Environmentalists pointed out, however, that more than 90 percent of the power that would have been produced by the dam was contracted to go to China.
Pipelines for natural gas tapped from offshore gas fields in western Burma are expected to begin transferring gas to China next year.
Meanwhile, most of Burma’s natural gas goes to Thailand, supplying more than 30 percent of its neighbor’s generating capacity.
“It’s very disheartening to learn that so much of our gas is to be used to light up other countries, while we are left in the dark,” said a Rangoon resident.