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DOES ZAMBIA KNOW THE FULL COMPOSITION OF IMPORTED FUEL?

A FEW years ago, both international and local media outlets reported that five countries in West Africa had resolved not to import dirty fuels from Europe anymore.

This came in the wake of a whistleblower watchdog report that European refineries were exploiting weaker regulatory frameworks in Africa by exporting diesel containing very high levels of Sulphur content.

And the United Nations (UN) commended the move by these countries in that it would help more than 250 million people breathe safer and cleaner air.

Sulphur particles emitted by diesel engines are considered to be a major contributor to air pollution and are ranked by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of the top global health risks associated with heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory problems.

In addition, higher Sulphur levels in fuel contribute to damaging some components of the engine due to the corrosive nature of Sulphur other than shortening the lifespan of engine oil.

All these lead to increased vehicle maintenance costs. 

With regard to petrol, in the absence of strong controls and inspections, some importers whose motivation is cheaper prices can end up importing petrol with higher levels of benzene knowingly or unknowingly among other adulterants.

There is a lot of adulterants which can be added to both diesel and petrol before importation.  Usually, these adulterants have a density close to that of diesel and petrol.

Petroleum fumes, paints and adhesives containing Benzene beyond a certain level is very dangerous.  According to WHO finds, human exposure to Benzene has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases including cancer and aplastic anaemia. 

The challenge in most African countries including Zambia is that monitoring for fuel quality is limited to very few parameters such as density and presence of water. Yet the range of fuel parameters are many.

This problem is compounded by the absence of quality monitoring equipment which cover a broader range of parameters in real time. This means that adulterants can potentially be added at source before arriving in the country and remain undetected due to a narrow test range being conducted in real time.

Equipment which can monitor several range of parameters in real time is readily available on the market.

To enhance the integrity of the fuel supply chain, leading countries have coupled fuel marking programmes with enhanced quality management programmes in real time. There is need to move away from monitoring two to three test parameters in real time.

It is very inconveniencing to be sending some fuel samples outside the country to check for certain parameters.

For instance, if someone sells you Petrol 93 instead of Petrol 95 how can you know that in real time? Supposing someone sells you Diesel with sulphur content 700ppm instead of 500ppm how can you know in real time?

Several African governments decided to disengage from fuel procurement and left oil marketing companies (OMCs) to import fuel for themselves from sources of their choice.

While government disengagement which is executed within a proper exit plan, demeanor and controls can yield desired results, several African governments disengaged without adequate exit plans and a strengthened regulatory framework.

To this end, OMCs were left loose to import any kind of diesel and petrol they so wished from some of the cheapest sources at the expense of quality.

And because of a weak regulatory framework coupled with inadequate manpower to regularly conduct on the spot timely quality inspections which cover a broad range of parameters, the regulators have had significant challenges to arrest the situation.

The situation in West Africa is not a localised challenge. It is a mirror image of the status of the petroleum sub-sector in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Sub-Sahara Africa downstream petroleum challenges include weak regulatory framework, lack of adequate resources to enforce and monitor key fuel metrics, malfeasance and heavy price controls which spur unscrupulous traders to engage in malfeasance and procurement of cheap petroleum products at the expense of quality and thus contribute to the immiserating of people’s health. Poor quality fuels can come from any source and not just from particular refineries.

This is one of the major reasons I opposed Government’s decision to disengage from fuel procurement by March 1, 2017 without adequate exit plans and amending the Petroleum Act of 1995.

This law has been overtaken by significant developments in the industry. Disengaging is not a bad concept but the time frame at that time was too short to put in place a reasonable exit plan which was going to inform, guide and mentor government’s exit from fuel procurement.

And to the best of my knowledge the Petroleum Act of 1995 has not yet been amended because the Petroleum Management Bill of 2019 is still in Government offices.

In addition, there was no clarity how the issue of quality was going to be managed if every OMC was to be importing for themselves. It may appear simple, but it is not.

For instance, “how were we going to implement the biofuels project which is meant to save Zambia over $120 million in forex per year should we allow all OMCs to be importing for themselves?”

Not only is the biofuels industry going to save government forex but it is also a massive job creation platform via outgrower schemes of biofuel crops such as cassava, soya beans, Jatropha etc.

In conclusion, I wish to appeal for the implementation of enhanced fuel quality management protocols which verify a broader range of key parameters coupled with continued fuel marking to continuously improve the integrity of the fuel supply chain.

There is also need to rethink the Petroleum Management Bill of 2019. Reforms in the sector will be incomplete without significant amendments to the Petroleum Act of 1995.

*Johnstone Chikwanda is an energy expert and a Fellow of the Engineering Institute of Zambia, a PhD candidate at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, Email: j_chikwanda@yahoo.com

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