Power Outages In Argentina And Uruguay – A New Kind Of Humanitarian Crisis?

Early on 16 June, a power outage in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, parts of Paraguay, and southern Brazil, was felt by over 48 million people. Both Argentina and Uruguay were left in darkness until supply began to return in the early afternoon. While the power failure was reportedly due to a fault in an electrical interconnection system, the cause remains unclear. According to national electricity companies Edesur and UTE, electricity supply has returned to most customers. Nevertheless, this widespread failure clearly shows the possibility of a new kind of humanitarian disaster.

According to Gustavo Lopetegui, Argentina’s Energy Secretary, it remains unclear what caused the failure, and he is ‘not ruling out any possibility.’ Amid the speculation over the cause, there has been criticism of Argentina’s energy infrastructure, and discussion over the involvement of heavy rain in the disruption. Raul Bertero, President of the Centre for the Study of Energy Regulatory Activity in Argentina, argued that ‘a localised failure … should be isolated’ and suggested that ‘the problem is known and technology … exists to avoid it.’ Others have linked the blackout to local elections in Argentina, which were also disrupted. Whilst some might debate the credibility of such speculation, this disruption demonstrates the plausibility of an international humanitarian crisis that directly implicates the energy sector and the broader drive for digitisation – in both developed and developing countries.

These events highlight our continued dependence on the physical environment, particularly given the possibility that heavy rain damaged connectivity to the hydroelectric Yacyretá Dam in Paraguay. If this power outage is related to unexpected weather, we must then expect such more such large-scale system failures in the future, and more frequently. This failure is also important to the developing nations that are increasingly reliant on hydroelectric power and exports, such as Ethiopia, where power shortages recently left many homes without power, as the industry was pushed towards exports. The potential for and reality of extreme weather will put many more people in danger, including those in vulnerable national (and personal) positions. However, it will affect those in developing nations the most, with their economies – and often the work of humanitarian organisations – put at risk, this will increase and perpetuate conflict. But, with Uruguay now the second richest country in South America, this should also reiterate that the growing environmental crisis is a human crisis without borders.

This failure will also generate political criticism in the coming days, as explanations of the power outage surface. The Argentinian government has already been criticised for its energy policy, with its power infrastructure seen as out of date and insufficient, despite government subsidies allowing citizens cheap power. If such evidence of government incompetence – in terms of dealing with the electric utility industry – is repeated, there could soon be further, far louder criticism regarding the country’s leadership.

Although what caused the system failure has not been revealed, these events exemplify the potential of a new form of humanitarian crisis, one which ignores state borders as much as those drawn between ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ disasters. With the energy sector reappearing as a key theme in international conflict, this could adversely affect the countries that rely on hydroelectric power to sustain their people and economy. Alongside these speculative debates run the more tangible concerns of cross border disruption, particularly regarding elections and essential public health services.

Philippa Payne