Albanian Daily News - Nov 22

Why the Lights Are Going Out over Kosovo

Albanian Economic Tribune

PRISHTINA - Shukrije Bllacaku, a single mother with five hungry young mouths to feed, put a pot of soup on her electric stove at eight o’clock in the morning.

Then, in what is an all too common daily occurrence in Kosovo at the moment, the power went out. It was three in the afternoon before she could cook the soup for her children.

"They just have to go hungry until the power comes back on," Bllacaku said at her home in the Kosovo capital Prishtina.

Kosovo’s people are coping as best they can with the cuts which plunge homes, shops and offices across the war-scarred province into darkness, knock out heating systems, play havoc with domestic appliances and can last for more than a day.

The bad news for Bllacaku and the rest of Kosovo’s two million population, enjoying a relatively mild November so far but aware temperatures could plummet any time, is that things are unlikely to improve for at least the next couple of weeks.

But, the United Nations-led administration here insists and fervently hopes, the situation should then get steadily better over the following three months, the coldest on the calendar.

Political Risks

Senior officials fear discontent and a major loss of trust in the administration if people are freezing in candle lit homes through the winter. They also acknowledge they are taking a political risk by sending out electricity bills this month, for the first time since they took over the running of Kosovo from Serbian authorities in June, just as the power cuts are at their worst.

An internal UN document on the utilities situation, obtained by Reuters, warns of "serious consequences" if any of the deadlines for repairs to the power system are not met.

Adding to the political plot, the UN has demanded a report from Albanian workers who choose which area is cut off when demand for power is too great, amid allegations homes owned by the Serb minority or used by foreigners are hit too often.

The Albanians insist they are simply working to a strict plan which gives priority to areas with sites of strategic importance such as water pumping plants and hospitals.

In the midst of the politics and intrigue, a team of specialists from the British-based consultancy Mott MacDonald is racing against the clock to deal with major generation, transmission and supply difficulties.

Bill White, the team leader, says NATO’s bombing campaign earlier this year to end Serb repression of Kosovo Albanians has had no major effect on the power system. His biggest problem is years of under funding and neglect by Serb authorities.

"There’s been no investment at all," he said in his office in central Prishtina, cold and unlit due to the latest power cut. "The power stations have been allowed to decay."

Kosovo has two stations, both coal-fired and located near Prishtina. The more modern Kosovo B plant has been shut down this month to overhaul its two generating units. Officials intend to make it the province’s main source of electricity.

In the meantime, the nearly 40-year-old Kosovo A - a dark, smoke-belching mass of pipes, turbines and huge metal walkways now better suited as the set for a post-apocalyptic movie than as a serious power generation facility - is taking the strain.

Battling Bureaucracy

Of the plant’s five generating units, one has already been written off as unusable and two are operating. Each has an average running period of five to eight days before it breaks down and requires repair.

White has been keen to start up the other remaining units. But battling bureaucracy to organise funding and delivery of enough diesel to do so, and getting it through Kosovo’s chronically clogged border with Macedonia, has proved tough.

"I think people will learn a lot of lessons from this. We’re still learning lessons," said White, who has had to rely on considerable logistical help from British peacekeeping troops.

"They got everything running here and without their continuing support, we’d be struggling even more," he said.

Officials proudly point out that more power is being generated now in Kosovo than in the same period last year. But at that time, the power authorities could rely on big imports from the rest of Serbia and other countries. Damage to the three highest-voltage supply lines into the province means that option is severely limited for the moment.

The first line should be repaired by next month, according to UN plans. Coupled with the completion of the Kosovo B units - the first on November 23, the second in early December - this should mean a major overall improvement.

UN Unrepentant

The plan sounds fine. What people like Shukrije Bllacaku and the millions of other electricity consumers might be forgiven for asking is: Why wasn’t it carried out sooner, when the weather was warmer and the days were longer?

"It takes time to implement the strategy," responds Joan Pearce, the international administration official in charge. Even before the plan could be drawn up, engineers had to conduct extensive assessments of the power network - not easy in Kosovo’s landmine-littered landscape. Officials then had to gather donor pledges to fund the 100 million-mark ($53 million) programme.

"I think we’ve done pretty well to have advanced as far as we have," said Pearce, an official from the European Commission, which has responsibility for the power sector as part of the reconstruction brief it holds within the UN-led mission.

She is also unrepentant about the decision to send out electricity bills this month, saying the sector needs to raise revenue to pay its workers and that consumers will become more frugal when they have to pay for their power.

"I think people are expecting to pay," she said. "I think, if anything, people are wondering why they haven’t been asked to pay already." (Reuters)

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