Finding a road to Amaila

If Thursday’s meeting of stakeholders on the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project (AFHP) was government’s way of energizing Article 13 of the Constitution which mandates the involvement of the people in the decisions of the country, particularly those that directly affect their well-being, then it was a masterstroke and indicates changed thinking by the Office of the President and by extension, Freedom House.

Unfortunately, it is more than likely that Article 13 was furthest from the minds of those in government who organized this meeting at the International Conference Centre at Liliendaal. What was more likely the objective of the arrangers was to present to the public a confabulation of like minds who would in scripted form acclaim the government’s approach and pass down an edict to the hapless populace that Amaila, questions or no questions, had to be proceeded with.

Any gathering of this type is useful as the more people that are involved in public ferment on issues like Amaila the closer the populace gets to the orbit of truth. However, as much as this Thursday gathering was helpful to those who were present and not present, it was no substitute for the forum within which the real decisions have to be made – Parlia-ment. Do any of those who attended Thursday’s forum believe that if the government had a majority in Parliament they would have been canvassed? According to the results of the 2011 elections,   the people who first and foremost have to be convinced are those in the majority in Parliament. They are not convinced as yet. So those who signed on to support the government’s position on Amaila as announced by the government Whip in Parliament, Ms Teixeira, should now invest some of their time trying to convince the opposition MPs of what they now firmly believe following Thursday’s forum.

What is clear to many objective readers of the situation is that there are serious outstanding questions about Amaila which have not been answered and which the government does not seem keen to be upfront about. If those who attended Thursday’s session are confident that they know the answers to these questions then they are in a rarefied group. We suspect that a significant percentage of them may know little of the details of the financing costs of the agreements on the table and the intricacies of the supply of a massive amount of power from a single point on the Amaila network to GPL for onward distribution. Those at the forum on Thursday are not the ones who will be held accountable if something went horribly wrong with the single largest utility project in the country. They should also bear in mind the calamitous failure of a previous attempt in the 70s even if as a result of far different circumstances.

The drip drip of information from the government on this project continues to raise more red flags that require clarifications and assurances. Which of those who attended Thursday’s forum would confidently say full speed ahead after hearing PM Hinds himself tell a parliamentary committee on Friday that foreign managers/coaches have been recommended for GPL? Such a recommendation could only mean that whoever was doing the recommending is not confident of the present leadership of GPL. It is more than likely that this evaluation was done in the context of the extended responsibilities for GPL if and when the AFHP gets going. So questions about the leadership of GPL – the focal point for the Amaila power – have now been raised. What does that say for an integral part of this whole project which has been entirely under the thumb of the government and its handpicked board over the last two decades? How could those at Thursday’s forum not have any doubts after hearing PM Hinds – who has had responsibility for the electricity sector for nearly 21 years – state that 90% of the present 15% technical losses was as a result of underinvestment in the utility’s old and overloaded system. Who has been in the wheelhouse of the utility for the last 20 or so years? It is not those who attended Thursday’s session and certainly not those who are in the majority in Parliament.

Serious questions remain to be answered before water tumbles over the Amaila Falls to generate electricity and it is only fitting that Parliament plays its rightful role in this process. The government has already frittered away years and millions of dollars as a result of bad decisions in this project. A little more time cannot be fatal to it. What the government and the opposition should do is agree on the immediate recruitment of two experts in hydropower projects: one on the plant side and another on the financial side. They could then be asked to review all of the documentation of the project so far and offer advice on what changes should be made and to provide answers to the opposition’s outstanding questions.

There are three key areas to be addressed:

i)  the cost of the project and whether interest charges and rates of return are acceptable;

ii)    Whether GPL will be in a position to efficiently handle the receipt and distribution of the power from Amaila and what would become of the excess that can’t be utilized;

iii)    Will the tariffs to all classes of consumers progressively decrease and then stabilize at a significantly lower rate given the financial terms of the agreements on the table?

There will be no disputing that these issues are still unsettled and both sides can agree that the parliamentary committees on natural resources and economic services can take on the role of managing this additional inquiry.

The committees can also invite the presence of a team from the IDB and the Chinese financiers and builder to advise them of this process and to invite clarifications on outstanding issues. Such a procedure would help immensely to clarify for the government, the opposition, those who attended Thursday’s forum and the public at large on the way forward for this vexed project.

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