NOTES FROM THE FIELD: A Taste of Peak Oil – Malawi style

by Kathleen Draper (Marlboro MBA Candidate 2011)

During our Independent Learning Adventure (ILA) trip to Malawi we had the luck (not sure if it was good or bad to this day…just interesting) to run smack into a quasi-peak oil experience.  Enlightening doesn’t begin to describe it.  With absolutely no warning, we found out that the petrol (gas) imported to the country had stopped.  Completely.  Apparently this was due to currency problems or that is the story we were told anyway.

We were on our way to Lake Malawi for the weekend which is a few hours’ drive from Toleza Farm, where we were staying.  We checked every petrol station on our way to Lake Malawi to see if they would sell us gasoline. Not until we got to our hotel and our driver was able to make “arrangements” did we find anyone willing to sell us gasoline.  The price was double what it had been the day before.  Still we decided it was best to top up the gas, just ‘in case’.  Not knowing when gas would be available, we decided to find a way for our driver to get back to his hometown that night and for us to keep the car to drive back in a few days time instead of his keeping the car for the weekend.  His ride back ended up costing us over $150 which is equivalent to half a years’ salary for many in Malawi!  Ouch #2.

A few days later we drove back to the Farm with very few deviations on the route as we didn’t want to eat up any unnecessary gas.  We made it back to the farm safely only to find that the farm was depleted of any sort of petrol – a far more serious situation than for us getting back from a weekend jaunt.  Without petrol, tractors can’t run and trucks bringing cotton to the gin were stalled.  Life grew just a little bit quieter.  But still there was a stress underlying the quiet.  When would there be petrol?  When would life return to normal?

Five days later, petrol started slowly flowing back into the country.  Thankfully this was just in time for me to get back to the Capital, Lilongwe, for my flight out of the country.  Phew!  How nice of them to accommodate me.

Upon our return to the States however, we heard petrol shortages hit Malawi again soon after we left, only this time it lasted for 3 weeks.  Apparently the impact with in the country was a lot more violent that time around.  I see that day coming for us here when gas is in short supply, or maybe not available for any number of different reasons and I wonder at our resilience to such a shock…


2 thoughts on “NOTES FROM THE FIELD: A Taste of Peak Oil – Malawi style

  1. Living on the the island of Hawaii all of our fuel is brought in by ship. There is about a three day supply if delivery stops. Delivery disruption could be caused by any number of reasons. Living in the United States is no guarantee that we are above the impact of peak oil and oil dependance.

  2. Yes, a good post and a real eye opener.

    When we think of oil, we picture the gas tank analogy. When the needle reaches E for empty is when we are in trouble. The world does in fact have a trillion barrels of oil left to produce. The real analogy is like a Pearl Harbor reconnaissance plane flying its mission over the ocean. The plane flies as far as it can for as high as it can. The pilot fulfils the mission of aerial photography of enemy positions. At a certain point though the pilot knows he must turn around at the HALF WAY point of the gas gauge to make it back home. When the needle reaches at half the tank the pilot MUST RETREAT and DESCEND to make it back to base. When the world has produced as much oil as it ever can in one day (peaked), when it has flown as far as it can for as high as it can the world economy MUST RETREAT and DESCEND.


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