South Africa's fuel shortage hits neighbours, could affect humanitarian operations

The fuel shortage in South Africa has started affecting supplies in neighbouring countries dependant on exports from regional economic power and some petrol stations in Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique have already run dry.

Airlines have been unable to refuel and the shortage has caused flight delays; motorists uncertain about supplies as they embark on the mass migration to the coast for the holiday season have been hoarding fuel.

In Namibia, the capital Windhoek has already been affected and "other countries in the region could face similar problems due to their reliance on South African fuel," Gary Ronald, a spokesperson for the Automobile Association of South Africa, told IRIN.

Ronald attributed the shortage to operating problems experienced by refineries, which had to close for upgrading to meet the South African government's new clean fuel policy. The new policy comes into force on 1 January 2006, when refiners may no longer add lead to fuel and have to reduce the sulphur content in diesel.

"The Caltex refinery in Cape Town had to shut down to upgrade for the new fuel policy and at the same time the Mossgas plant in Mossel Bay experienced a power cut," Ronald explained.

He said the shortage started in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces and spread to most of the country. Shortages in one region "have a knock on effect, as fuel is diverted from other areas - the only unaffected province is KwaZulu-Natal."

As to why the industry had not complied with the 30-day reserve supply, Ronald speculated that "the country should have a strategic reserve, but this might have been released to accommodate demand following recent price drops."

After briefing parliamentarians on the shortage today, Colin McClelland, Director of the South African Petroleum Industry Association, told IRIN "the only real shortage is diesel in Cape Town - generally speaking, we are okay."

"The shortage has not been the result of cleaner fuels policy, but of an underestimation of the bridging stocks necessary while refineries made the change-over - we underestimated the time necessary to bring the refineries back on steam," McClelland commented.

He said the current shortage was also the result of media publicity, which had triggered widespread hoarding and pre-buying as people stockpiled fuel, fearing a real shortage. "It will be a zero-sum game - once people's tanks are full, supplies can and will return to normal levels."

An effort is being made to alleviate the pressure on demand by importing fuel, but it is unclear when it will arrive.

In light of the current precarious food security in the Southern Africa region, fuel shortages could set back humanitarian operations and disrupt programmes. In October this year a fuel crisis in Zambia seriously hampered efforts to mitigate food shortages when transport became unavailable.