TOTAL BLACKOUT: Do the local authorities have a plan if Eskom collapses?

2015-07-29 12:27
Stephanie Saville

Stephanie Saville

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THERE is a more than 50% chance that the country’s energy grid will suffer a total collapse soon, energy analyst Ted Blom recently told a National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) panel at a public hearing in Johannesburg on Eskom’s application for a further hike in tariffs.

News 24 reported that Blom said: “A total grid collapse is what we don’t want to face because it will take you anything between a week and two weeks to recover, and I’m not even talking about the mayhem that will occur in the meantime.”

Not everyone agrees with Blom that the chances of an energy meltdown are this great. In fact, the people The Witness spoke to believe the chances are very remote. However, no one believes that should a total blackout occur, the effects would be minimal. They would be catastrophic.

The Witness asked local authorities to tell us about their state of preparedness should the remote possibility of an Eskom blackout occur.

The answers received proved disconcerting as they evidenced little pragmatic direction for citizens who will be grappling in the dark with the effects of this possibly monumentally chaotic situation.

Msunduzi Municipality

The Witness asked the Msunduzi Municipality a list of questions which included: what should residents do? What direction will the municipality provide? How will emergency phone systems be kept going? Will Darvill still be pumping sewage?

There are horror stories of the sewage systems possibly backing up and coming out of people’s toilets and drains. What should people do — should they use their toilets or not? If not, what should they do?

Will our water supply be maintained?

How will the municipality cope with water supply in the face of a blackout? Will water tankers be doing the rounds?

Will there be a centre where people can go for help?

Will the municipality still function?

What if people can’t pay their bills due to banks shutting down? Will a special dispensation be granted for late payments?

Will extra security in the form of police be employed to ensure the safety of residents?

Will there be petrol?

Will people still be able to draw money and buy food? If not, who will feed them?

What special plan has been made for hospitals?

Will rubbish be collected? If not, where should people go to dump their rubbish? If they haven’t got petrol, how should they deal with their rubbish?

Acting spokesperson for Msunduzi Municipality, Nqobile Madonda, replied: “The fire control centre, traffic and security control room and the essential services call centres all have diesel-powered backup generators, so we would still be accessible to residents and continue to offer our assistance.

“Communication between other service departments with all the control rooms/centres mentioned above is not only limited to just telephonic or e-mails, but we do have two-way radios that we use, when all other communication is not available.”

Madonda said there should be “no reason for functions that require manual labour not to proceed, with specific reference to refuse removal”.

“Most functions can continue as normal in our offices that have backup generators; however, just like the rest of the country, we are constantly looking at ways of better preparing ourselves in case a total blackout is experienced by the country.”

Asked to provide more specific answers to the questions posed to Msunduzi, Madonda replied in an e-mail that banks, ATMs and questions about accessing money and buying food, “do not lie in the municipality’s domain”.

“Just like stores, some banks have backup generators and banks are privately owned.”

Regarding the question about the security of residents in the event of a shutdown, she said: “Yes, we do have a security department, but it does not replace or encroach on the SAP— KZN Department of Community Safety and Liaison functioning.”

Regarding petrol, she said council has its own supply in the depots, for council vehicles, provided that there is still supply from oil refineries.

Asked to elaborate on the possible problems regarding water supply and sewage, Madonda said: “I think that those are covered under the last point of us looking at other ways to prepare ourselves better, especially with regards to water pumps and sewer plants.”

Regarding hospitals and clinics, she said: “The Department of Health will give guidance.”

The municipality did not provide a copy of its disaster management plan to The Witness, despite being asked twice to do so.

Umgeni Water

While sewage backlogs may occur in the reticulation side of the system which is administered by Msunduzi, regarding the treatment of sewage at Darvill sewage works, Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder said partial treatment of sewage would occur, with “disinfection of incoming sewer before it goes to the river”.

He said that some units at Darvill could continue to process sewage.

He said a project of co-generation (generating electricity from methane gas), which is still in the design stage, would allow more units to operate when it was commissioned, but this is not yet operating.

Asked about the chance of sewage backlogs, Harichunder said these happen without being affected by power failure and said Umgeni Water is not responsible for sewerage reticulation.

Asked how long Darvill could operate off-grid, he said that due to equipment installed at Darvill, powering the entire plant with generators is “not advisable or suitable”, so the project of co-generation is being implemented.

Harichunder said Darvill receives sewage and stores it in the storm dam on site. When it is full, partial treatment is done before releasing effluent into the Msunduzi River.

Health

The Health Department declined to answer any questions sent. The Witness asked what plans have been put in place and how hospitals and clinics would be run. It asked about generators at medical facilities and how much fuel the department has in reserve to power generators and ambulances. It asked about its disaster plan and for advice to people in terms of hygiene and hydration given a possible restrictions on water supplies due to the blackout.

Cogta

The Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs was asked if KZN and its municipalities are prepared for the possibility of an Eskom blackout and if they have disaster plans in place. It was asked to provide direction on what residents should do. It was asked how emergency phone systems would be kept going and about sewerage systems’ functionality. The Witness also asked about water supply and if water tankers would be doing the rounds. We asked if there would be a centre where people could go for help and if extra security would be available to ensure the safety of residents and plans for petrol, buying food and drawing money. Would a plan be made to feed people who have no access to cash, and what special plan has been made for hospitals and clinics?

Spokesperson Lennox Mabaso did not answer the direct questions, but did send a reply, saying the province does have a disaster management plan in place to ensure that all critical areas for the functioning of the country and province are in place. “The plan includes a milieu of contingency measures and the various stakeholders such as businesses and strategic facilities have been engaged to put alternative options in place. The plan unfortunately contains sensitive information on other strategic sensitive areas and therefore cannot be divulged. It is part of the national disaster management programme for South Africa.”

PCB

Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, was asked: “Has Chamber any plan to urge businesses to prepare as best they can? Is there a plan from Chamber’s side? Do you have any advice for PMB’s businesses in terms of preparedness?”

Veness said: “This is a very tricky question, because, as you say, while it is extremely unlikely, it is a possible risk, and so, each business owner needs to weigh up the risk and factor appropriate contingencies into his or her planning. The existing uncertainty with regard to the security of supply (both from load shedding and outages) has meant that a number of our factories have already manufactured buffer stock (at great expense) so that they can be assured of their ability to service their customers, particularly their overseas customers, who demand global standards and who cannot be expected to carry the risks of and/or appreciate the consequences of local load shedding. This is a prudent approach to protect their customer base and it is certainly worth considering in the medium term, but it does come at a cost.

“There are other risks, too, that each business owner needs to consider, such as labour issues but, again, these need to be assessed by each business owner according to his or her own circumstances.”

Eskom

The national power system has multiple layers of manual and automatic protection in place in order to prevent a national blackout from occurring. Load shedding is one of the mechanisms implemented by the system operator to protect the power system. The eventuality of a blackout occurring is therefore highly unlikely. Planning for a national blackout forms a part of Eskom’s emergency preparedness and disaster management initiatives as required by the Grid Code and the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002.

Eskom regularly undertakes a variety of simulation exercises and tests in order to ensure that the organisation is prepared to respond to extreme events and to identify areas that can be improved to enhance Eskom’s readiness.

In the past, these exercises have addressed issues such as preparedness for emergency demand reduction, preparations for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, local elections and the African Cup of Nations.

Nersa

Nersa’s head of communications managed this brief response when asked what plans are being made and whether Nersa is satisfied with the emergency plans.

“Eskom is better positioned to respond to your questions.”

Police

No response was given to questions sent to the police regarding the SAPS plan for a total electricity blackout.

SOME organisations have already distributed a disaster plan to their members, among these the Apostolic Faith Mission, whose National Leadership Forum recently sent a Crisis Readiness Plan to parishes.

Families were urged to take non-perishable food, water and medical supplies to their churches.

AFM president Dr Isak Burger said a total collapse of the electricity grid, which would have devastating consequences, is a real possibility.

He said that if the provisions are not used within a year they will be distributed to the needy.

Solidarity Union in June launched an emergency plan aimed at the event of a total Eskom blackout. The plan offers practical tips on how households can prepare for the possibility of being without Eskom electricity for up to two weeks. Solidarity said that although chances for a collapse of the national grid are slim, the union believes members of the public should consider being prepared for it to some degree. Solidarity warned that independent energy experts have also referred to the possibility of protracted power outages. Piet le Roux, head of Solidarity’s Research Institute, said: “Should an Eskom grid collapse occur, the public will, to a large extent, have to rely on themselves and should thus be prepared for it. Even if it doesn’t happen — as it will not in all likelihood — it is still in the public’s interest to be proactive. With this emergency plan we want to help our members and the general public to be prepared too so there would be no reason to panic should Eskom not be able to supply electricity for a week or two.”

Solidarity’s plan includes tips that range from having water and food supplies to arrangements on how family members would stay in touch with one another should communication be impeded. Other aspects deal with safety and co-operation between neighbours and the community.

Beforehand

• Stock up on alternative energy sources like wood and gas.

• Consider family logistics and communications should a power outage occur.

• Keep five litres of water per day per family member.

• Keep two weeks’ supply of non-perishable goods.

• Ask what your employer’s plan is should a blackout occur — must you still go to work?

• Keep enough fuel for urgent use for your vehicles.

• Keep a supply of chronic mediation and stock your first-aid kit.

• Get a weapon. This could vary from a firearm to a pepper spray.

• Stock up on hygiene products, toilet paper and plastic bags.

• Plan how to block toilets and drains temporarily if necessary.

• Get a battery-powered FM radio and extra batteries.

• Gather a supply of cash in small notes.

• Combat boredom by getting a number of board games for the family to play and tackle general domestic repairs.

During the outage

• Determine the whereabouts of family members and activate your emergency plan of who goes where.

• Replenish water supply immediately, before it’s too late. Fill an extra bath.

• Discard food, rather than eat it and get sick.

• Replenish fuel and avoid unnecessary driving.

• Replenish chronic medication immediately.

• Reuse grey water for flushing toilets.

• Block drainage holes and toilets as necessary.

• If your toilet doesn’t work, bury faeces.

• Use your cash sparingly

Read more on:    blackouts  |  eskom

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