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Tourists stranded on Table Mountain

The power woes being felt across southern Africa reached one of the region's premier attractions _ leaving tourists trapped suspended in cable cars at Cape Town's landmark Table Mountain.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The power woes being felt across southern Africa reached one of the region's premier attractions — leaving tourists trapped suspended in cable cars at Cape Town's landmark Table Mountain.

The power cut Monday night trapped 500 people at the top of the mountain and in two cable cars for three hours. That was followed Tuesday by an outage of about an hour across the Zambian capital that forced some nurses at a hospital to work by candlelight. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have also felt the effects of a deepening regional energy crisis.

Aging infrastructure and growing demand has lead to increasing power outages in southern Africa. This has been exacerbated in the last week as rolling blackouts in South Africa caused the national electricity utility to suspend exports to neighboring countries as it battles to meet demand in the continent's economic hub.

Zambia's power utility, the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation, sent out notices Tuesday saying power would be turned off from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday. Power went off in the capital at about 6 p.m. but was restored over an hour later. However, other parts of the country were still without electricity.

At the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, the largest public hospital in Zambia, generators have been used to power the intensive care unit and critical facilities. But in other medical wards nurses were attending to patients by candlelight, public relations manager Pauline Mbangweta said.

Zambia, which relies on hydroelectricity, experienced a national power outage for more than seven hours Saturday night, and then again for about four hours Monday night.

On Tuesday the Zambian state Energy Regulation Board summoned top officials from the country's private power authority to account for the outages.

While officials said that a high voltage occurrence resulted in the first outage, they have given no further public details on the cause, and are conducting an investigation.

The outages have affected operations in Zambia's economically critical copper mining sector, and some miners were temporarily trapped underground during the first power outage. Zambian mines are now importing energy from neighboring Congo.

In a statement, Konkola Copper Mines, Zambia's biggest copper mine, said "mining and metallurgical operations have come to a halt due to equipment damage and the reduced power supply."

Botswana, which imports 70 percent of its power from South Africa, is now depending on unreliable additional supplies from Mozambique, which has to be transported either through South Africa or Zimbabwe.

Damage to a section of the transmission line through Zimbabwe, which will take about a week to repair, has led to the threat of further shortages.

Namibia, which imports 45 percent of its energy from South Africa, will now also be forced to introduce planned outages known as load shedding in efforts to reduce electricity usage by about 20 percent, officials said Tuesday.

South Africa's utility company Eskom says demand is simply too high for it to keep up with, but there is mounting fury that the power cuts are unpredictable and are causing unnecessary economic losses and personal misery.

The power crisis in South Africa was to be urgently discussed at a three-day meeting between President Thabo Mbeki and his Cabinet that started Tuesday.

Eskom chief Jacob Maroga briefed the Cabinet about the country's power supply and measures the utility was putting in place to address challenges.

Jerry Vilakazi, head of Business Unity South Africa, expressed concern about the impact of cut supplies to neighboring countries, where there are many South African business interests.

"I don't believe South Africa can be an island in a dark region," he said. "If we take drastic steps that fail to recognize the interdependency between countries in the region, we could end up hurting ourselves more," he said.

Zimbabwe, where power and water outages occur daily, has been hit by worsening power failures, leaving long-suffering Zimbabweans without electricity, water, telephones and traffic signals.