By Zal Bilimoria, KF9, Ecuador
Ecuadorian cheese tastes a bit different if one is not accustomed to eating it. Cheese is not necessarily the most common ingredient in local fare, as the staple for most meals is rice, plantains and beans served with beef, chicken or some other type of meat. However, it’s unmistakeable when you take that first bite of pizza, pasta or ham and cheese sandwich…especially if it hasn’t been refrigerated properly due to the energy crisis sweeping the country.
This is typically the dry season for much of Ecuador, but for the past two years, it has rained just enough to support the energy demands of the country, which hinge on the Paute hydroelectric dam south of Cuenca. Unfortunately, the presidential administration and the energy department decided to forgo plans to build additional hydroelectric installations and bet Ecuador’s future on their belief that rain would come once again for a third year in a row. However, here in Cuenca just 100 miles north of the dam, clear blue skies and record high temperatures suggest that pending rainfall is but a dream. Paute needs to operate at roughly 70% efficiency in order to satisfy domestic demand; at the present time, the most it can muster is 35%.
You might wonder why a single dam is responsible for supplying most of Ecuador’s energy. As do I. Essentially, it comes down to a lack of financial resources to design, build and manage further capacity. Ecuador’s relationships with neighboring countries are sub-par at the moment, but after two weeks of power rationing, Peru has agreed to sell 1,200 megawatts per hour per day and Colombia has committed to increasing cross-border provisions — at a great economic and political cost to the Ecuadorian presidential administration of Rafael Correa. Daily power rationing began on November 5, and each zone in every town nationwide is without power for 3-5 hours on average, and on Sundays for up to 12 hours — when everyone (including me) flocks to the beaches. Even though some headway is being made, the government estimates that power rationing in some form will last through the holidays.
The rationing has severely injured the economic health of Ecuador’s population, especially the working poor. All of you have likely been through rolling brownouts or even the massive east coast blackout during the very hot summer of 2002. Mostly a temporary inconvenience for us. But imagine it being a daily occurrence with no idea when the government will manually shut down electricity in your place of business, never mind your home. Luckily, the authorities are beginning to publish and distribute more schedules of non-operation.
Here is just a brief list of situational examples of how Ecuador is being impacted:
- Kiva entrepreneur with a photography business forced to turn away clients because she could not print photos
- Kiva entrepreneur with a restaurant needed to close on Sunday since there was no power during daylight hours
- Long bank lines during peak hours in order to cash in government-aid vouchers with many being turned away
- Extensive automobile lines for purchasing gas during hours of electricity operation, thus pushing up prices
- Major bus accident outside Cuenca last night at dusk prior to street lights turning on for the night, taking 14 souls
- No running water in many locations during times of power rationing since they share the same electricity lines
Again, the government feels like they have a handle on the crisis now and will begin to reduce the power rationing. But until then, I think I’ll stay away from cheese and its distant cousin sour cream.