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Lights Out! In Many Global Cities, Power Outages Are Part of Everyday Life

A birthday party by candlelight in Tanzania. Photo by Pernille Baerendsten, used with permission.

Birthday party in a village in the Njombe area, southern Tanzania. The village has no stable electricity supply. Photo by Pernille Baerendsten, used with permission.

This story was compiled and edited by Georgia Popplewell, Ellery Roberts Biddle, and the Global Voices community.

Power cuts are such rare occurrences in large, developed cities that when New York’s power supply was cut for 13 hours in 1965 it became the subject of a Hollywood movie. And today, US National Public Radio, alongside stories about the Yemen airstrikes, the Ebola-related lockdown in Sierra Leone and healthcare policy in the US, devoted 30 seconds of its morning newscast to today’s power cut in Amsterdam. 

To be fair to both NPR and Amsterdam, the outage, which lasted 90 minutes, was highly disruptive and caused flights to be diverted from Europe’s fourth-largest airport. But in many countries around the world, power outages fall more into the “dog bites man” category: they’re hardly the stuff of news, occurring with such frequency that daily life becomes calibrated to accommodate them. The lights go out, water pumps stop working, and the temperature control systems go caput. And if you're anything like us, whether you're freezing in Ukraine or boiling in Bangladesh, your Internet router probably stops working too.

In response to the Amsterdam story, Global Voices community members shared anecdotes (and some laughs) about the power supply situation in their countries. Over half of those who chimed in had experienced a power outage within 48 hours of our conversation.

One author from Egypt cheekily noted that his city of Minya, Egypt was in the middle of an outage when the message arrived. “We are going through one at the moment!” he wrote. “Since I'm sitting in the dark right now, this is actually fun.” The map above, created by Rising Voices Director Eddie Avila, shows our full roster of responses from across the world. Here are a few more samples:

A friend in Tanzania presses a garment with a hot coal iron, in lieu of an electric one. Photo by Pernille.

Pressing clothes in southern Tanzania with a charcoal iron, which is cheaper and more reliable than an electric one. Photo by Pernille Bærendtsen.

Rezwan, South Asia Editor
Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Population: 15 million
Last power outage: Today at 3pm Bangladesh time (about 4.5 hours ago)
Average frequency of power outages: Twice or more per week
Effects on daily life:
“It becomes unbearable to live indoors due to hot weather.” 

Nihan Guneli, Author
Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Population: 18+ million
Last power outage: Yesterday
Frequency: Almost daily
Effects on daily life:
“If you don't have a generator, you basically can't do your work.”

Islam Sayed Abdul Wahab, Author
Location: Minya, Egypt
Population: 4 million
Last power outage: Today — we are going through one at the moment!&nbsp
Average frequency of power outages: 2-3 hours per day
Effects on daily life: “We also lose water, because most of houses and apartments here depend on water pumps to get water into their places. Also mobiles networks sometimes and hospitals lose power.”

A roadside stand offers cold drinks in Jinja, Uganda. This is common throughout East Africa, where people do not have regular access to electricity or refrigeration. Photo by Pernille Bærendtsen.

Annie Zaman, Author
Location: Faisalabad, Pakistan
Population: 3-4 million
Last power outage: 5:15 pm today
Frequency: It plays hide and seek 12 hours in a day.
Effects on daily life:
“It affects everything from water supply to charging camera and phone chargers. The families who can afford use UPS or generators (fuel or mostly natural gas-based), which adds to noise pollution. I already feel that I have started speaking louder [since my return to Pakistan].”

Marie Bohner, Author
Location: Strasbourg, France
Population: 276,750
Last power outage: “It seems that the last “big” one (“big” meaning having a small article in the local media) was in a specific quarter of Strasbourg in September 2014. It lasted 3 minutes and did not have any big impact as most of the buildings have a safety system for power supply in case of power outage. I have to admit that I never had to suffer a power outage in Strasbourg, as far as I can remember.”
Frequency: Almost never
Effects on daily life: “I can't say that I am affected in any way by real power outages in Strasbourg.”

Nearly all those who wrote in lamented the effects on technology and work, the costs of maintaining a backup power supply, and the regular challenges of storing and heating water for everyday use. Author and translator Thalia Rahme, who lives in Beirut, wrote:

As a Lebanese person, I do not remember a day without an electrical shortage. All Lebanese pay for electricity twice. First, you pay the state, and then you have to pay for a generator. We pay per 5 ampere. This bill alone can cost up to 100 USD for the 5 amps. Lucky are the rich ones who can afford 10 amps or more. In summer, 5 amps is barely enough to turn on a few lights and keep your fridge on so food isn't spoiled. Forget about hot water to shower.

Imagine in summer when power goes off in the middle of the night and you can't turn the AC on. After a certain number of hours generator providers don't give you power. Mosquitoes, sweating, insomnia — how romantic!

And yes, it happens every day in Beirut, at a somewhat predictable rate. So we schedule when to iron and when to shower based on that. Now it's 6:15, so it just went off. 

That is in a way the story of my life. If you want, add to it water shortage. I can tell you in that regard that what I like most when I travel is showers in hotels. I have no one yelling after me that there are other people in the house who need to shower as well. With my thick and curly hair, I can keep the water flowing as much as I want without yelling because suddenly there is no more hot water.

Global Voices RuNet Echo editor Tanya Lokot, described daily power shutdowns in her home city of Luhansk, Ukraine in the 1990s:

The planned power cuts were called “fan shutdowns”, because they were fanned out across cities over time. So my city would have power cut in different parts of the city for a couple of hours at different times, one after the other, to ease the load on the city systems. So we always knew when power would go out in the evening and prepared as best we could in terms of cooking, washing clothes and doing school work. ACs were not an issue because no one had them:)

Pernille Bærendtsen, an author from Denmark who spent many years working as a journalist in East Africa, recalled power outages in Dar es Salaam:

In Tanzania, I would plan my day in a completely different way. After works days, I remember how I would look for all signs of electricity when I turned down my street in the evening in Dar es Salaam: Would I hear the buzz from generators and would the kerosene lanterns be lit in the small shops, or would the power be on? Power outages in Tanzania are a huge thing — often one of the most debated issues on social media (also linked to corruption scandals etc.)

Nwachukwu Egbunike, a GV contributor and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria, had this closing thought:

Frankly, I could not resist laughing out loudly when I read this. When it comes to power outages in Nigeria, I was born into it and the way things are going, I'll die without seeing an uninterrupted 24 hours supply of electricity.

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