Sewage risk from possible blackout

2015-07-29 11:33

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NO water after 12 hours and a cascade of sewage bursting from drains all over the city.

Today The Witness can reveal the extent of chaos that could ensue if Eskom’s power generating capacity were to fail and the grid collapses, ­resulting in a countrywide blackout.

While experts have stressed that the likelihood of a total blackout is remote, if it does happen, doomsday scenarios may well hold true for some aspects of suburban life.

Speaking to The Witness, a retired plumber, ­Anton Venter, warned of huge problems with ­sewage contamination if a total blackout occurred and the country was left without power for a ­protracted time.

“A lot of sewer lines have pump stations on them. If they cannot pump the sewage away, it will overflow into rivers and wherever it can get out of the system. It will overflow into the streets, through manholes and wherever there is an ­opening.”

He said people living in low-lying areas would be most at risk of having sewage backing up into their homes and exiting through drains, either outside in their yards or inside their homes.

Shami Harichunder of Umgeni Water revealed that, in the event of a blackout, the city would have only 12 hours of water left in reservoirs from Umgeni.

After this most reservoirs will run out of water, he said.

In a bid to ascertain the city’s readiness for such a disastrous situation, The Witness asked key ­authorities how they were planning for the ­possibility of a major blackout.

Most departments approached were reluctant to provide firm information on their preparedness for an electricity shutdown, or to provide ­pragmatic advice on what residents should do in the event of a blackout.

Many responses were vague and evasive. In ­other instances, spokespeople for authorities passed the buck to another department.

One crucial department — the Department of Health — flatly refused to respond at all.

Dr Johan Minnie of the Disaster ­Management Institute of Southern Africa ­(DMISA) said people in the street would not ­normally be prepared for situations like a total electricity blackout.

“Very few people will be prepared. There is an initiative from national disaster management at government level for if that eventuality occurs. It’s a low probability but high impact situation should it occur.”

Minnie said what is also of concern is that ­businesses should have crisis management ­planning in place for this kind of scenario.

“From our side as the institute, that businesses are perhaps not doing the crisis management planning as they should be, is also a concern. It will be a very difficult situation to handle. The predictions on how long, if such a situation should occur, the total blackout would last, says a lot. Eskom and the national disaster management centre are working together on a plan for if this happens.”

However, none of the authorities approached was prepared to divulge details of such plan.

Following the release of Solidarity’s disaster plan for a total blackout (find it at, Piet le Roux, the head of Solidarity’s Research Institute, said while there was only a small chance that a national blackout could occur, the chance was not as small as it should be.

He said they had a fairly positive ­response to their emergency plan from the public. “Surprisingly there has been much less scepticism than expected. We expected some outcry from people, but the response has either been positive or silence. No one is confident enough to come out and say; ‘They have no grounds’.

“I am not going to rely on government assistance in that time. In that situation, the community will come together and solve problems together.”

Energy expert Chris Yelland said despite the low probability of an occurrence of a blackout, the consequence of one was very high risk.

“It is prudent and absolutely necessary that there should be plans in place. We don’t want to be running around not knowing what to do.”

Yelland, however, was satisfied that Eskom has its ducks in a row in terms of planning for such an eventuality. “Eskom has briefed cabinet about the emergency plan and ­requirements. It’s a good sign they’re doing emergency planning. While the public won’t know what to do, government will.”

Yelland expressed concern that Eskom was no longer providing information about the supply and demand of power and said there was a “worsening of communication as far as Eskom was concerned”.

He said the reality was that the probability of an Eskom collapse occurring was less than a one in 100, “but with very serious consequences”.

“The media have hyped it up. I am ­certainly not stocking up [on supplies] and I don’t have a list on my fridge about what I should do in the eventuality of a total ­blackout. The risk is so low, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. I am very comforted by the layers of plans Eskom has in place. What is not comforting though, is how often ­Eskom gets it wrong.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  eskom
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