How to prepare for a total Eskom blackout

This month Eskom started load-shedding again, which has left millions of South African households and businesses without power.

Load-shedding happens when Eskom’s power supply cannot meet demand, and the company shuts down power in a controlled manner.

This is done to prevent a complete grid blackout, where it would take weeks to get the country back online.

“When demand exceeds supply, what happens is you have overloading of generators, transformers, cables, and switch gear,” electricity expert Chris Yelland explained.

If there is an overload and equipment starts to trip, the overall electricity supply decreases, but the demand stays the same.

This places even greater strain on the parts of the grid still on, causing them to overload and trip – once again reducing supply.

Yelland said if you had an aerial view of the country, you would see these cascading trip-outs spread as a wave of darkness.

Besides leaving the country without power, a national blackout would require Eskom to restart power plants without electricity, called a “black start”. This could take up to three weeks.

A total blackout will be akin to civil war

Robbie van Heerden, a senior energy specialist at the CSIR, previously said a blackout would be a disaster “akin to civil war breaking out”.

He explained that during a blackout, darkness, no or minimal telecoms, water schemes running dry, social unrest, and looting would occur.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille explained in 2015 that while generators will be able to provide some reprieve, their fuel will run out.

“Cellphone companies can no longer transmit signals. Radio transmitters also die. So do ATMs,” said Zille.

Sewage pump stations would overflow, and hospitals and clinics would also stop functioning.

“The criminal justice system, including courts and prisons, would grind to a standstill. Public transport would come to a halt. Shops would close.”

“Life as we know it, in a modern economy, cannot function without electricity,” she said.

How to prepare for a total blackout

A total power blackout is an unlikely event, but according to a 2015 City Press report Eskom has secretly conducted a simulation to test how its systems would handle a total loss of power.

The exercise, code-named Breaking Dawn, tested areas such as emergency responses and how the crisis would be communicated to the media and public in the event of a complete blackout.

The secret exercise saw Eskom’s managers and operational staff who are part of the “divisional tactical command structures” take part.

This raises the question as to how South Africans can prepare for the unlikely event of a total blackout.

Trade union Solidarity has released an emergency plan to help people prepare should Eskom fail to supply power.

Beforehand (Priority)
Aspect Background Be prepared
Electricity Modern households depend on electricity. Ask yourself: how would you – without Eskom – get energy for lighting, preparing food, heating water, heating your home, household hygiene, security, entertainment and communication? Consider alternatives, including a generator, gas stove, solar panels, wood, etc.
Get a supply of fuel, such as wood, petrol and gas – and store it safely.
Use fuel from your old supply while you replenish it continuously.
Family logistics A grid collapse is likely to occur unexpectedly, while family members may not be at home. Parents at work and children at school may be unaware that the power failure is bigger than the normal load shedding. Discuss the situation with your family. Decide on every member’s first action and logistics.
Consider the role of your family and friends, to offer temporary accommodation to one another.
Periodically remind your family of the plan.
Water Municipalities often rely on electric pumps to pump water to reservoirs from where it is distributed to households. Without replenishment of reservoirs, taps can run dry in a day or two. Keep 5 litres of water per person per day available. E.g.: 5 litres * 4 persons * 14 days = 280 litres
Store water in a dark, cool place. Replace it regularly. Old water can get spoiled. Consider a water tank.
Keep a reasonable supply of water purification tablets, regardless of the water supply.
Food Shops possibly will have only a few days’ supply and might be unable to order new stock or to have it delivered. In particular, fresh and perishable food that cannot be refrigerated could be a problem. Keep two weeks’ non-perishable food (canned food, oranges, biltong, rusks, etc.)
Put bottles of water in empty spaces in your fridge. This way, your fridge will stay cool for longer.
Make sure that your food supply can stay fresh and can be prepared without Eskom.
Work Most places of work use electronic systems for bookkeeping, orders, stock, etc. Many normal work activities can grind to a halt because of a lack of stock or logistics. Confirm your employer’s plan: during a power failure, do you have to go to work or not?
Consider how you can work even without Eskom, such as working from home.
Make sure how your income and accounts will be affected if you cannot work.
Transport Fuel companies typically keep a reasonable supply, but distribution will be difficult. Without banks or computer networks, buying fuel could be a problem. In addition, there may be unusual traffic jams during a failure. Apart from fuel for power generation, keep sufficient fuel for urgent use of your vehicle.
Use fuel from your own supply, and replenish regularly.
Try a couple of alternative routes between work, school and home.
Medical Some medical facilities may have generators, but many will be able to run for only a couple of days or even hours. Medical aid transactions could be a problem if computer systems are down. Keep a good supply of your chronic medication, as well as a first-aid kit.
Find out where your nearest hospital and pharmacy with emergency power and a good Plan B are.
Ask your medical aid how they can support you in an emergency without power.
Safety and
Home alarm batteries usually last for between one and three days. Electric fences will be off most of the time and the nights will be very dark. Communication with the police will be very difficult; they themselves may experience fuel shortages and may have exceptional workloads. If you want to keep your alarm, consider a spare battery and a charging source.
Join your local neighbourhood watch and find out about plans regarding a power failure.
Get a weapon. This could vary from a firearm to pepper spray.
Beforehand (Additional)
Aspect Background Be prepared
Hygiene See above under “Water”. Getting water for bathing and washing dishes and clothes will be a challenge during water shortages. The water calculation above makes only that limited provision for hygiene. If you want to store extra water, remember that a litre of water weighs about a kilogram. Consider shower options that use little water, such as a bag shower, available at camping stores.
Keep a good supply of toilet paper, plastic bags and other hygiene products.
Get your family members into the habit of using water for cleaning sparingly.
Sewerage Municipalities use electric pumps in sewerage management, as for water. Without these pumps your sewerage system could become clogged and in low-lying areas it could even run back into your home. Consider a camp toilet with chemical sewage processing or a temporary pit toilet in the garden, etc.
Plan how to block toilets and drains temporarily if necessary. Consider gypsum, etc.
Get a big bucket or basin for keeping and re-using dish-washing water.
Refuse Refuse removal could continue if the municipality has fuel, and missing one week’s refuse removal would not be too bad. However, non-removal for more than a week will cause stench and even health hazards. Find out where to take refuse and whether these sites will be open during a power crisis.
Start a routine of separating refuse; keep perishable leftovers apart from glass, plastic, etc.
Keep an extra supply of refuse bags.
Communication Your phone’s battery may be charged, but networks (internet as well as telephone) could be down within days because of limited ability to function without external power sources for long periods. Without these networks, internet and cellphone signals will not be available. Get a battery-powered FM radio (and a spare set of batteries) to receive radio broadcasts.
Find out if there are any amateur radio operators in your area.
Consider a two-way radio to engage with your local neighbourhood watch.
Community Be prepared for neighbours who may be less well prepared and may approach you for assistance after a few days. And even in spite of your own preparation you may also need help later. Together we are stronger. Get acquainted with your neighbours and other people in your street.
Give a copy of this Emergency Plan to your neighbours and compare your state of preparedness.
Get involved with a local community structure, e.g. an AfriForum branch, neighbourhood watch or church.
Money Banks are likely to operate on back-up power for some time, but in the event of internet, telephone and security problems, transaction facilities and access to hard cash will be limited. With a lack of cash it becomes more difficult than usual to make and receive payments. Gather a supply of cash (small notes), even gradually. Store in a safe place.
Find out how your service providers are going to react to late payment of accounts.
Avoid the use of cash by exchanging items of which you have a lot for what you are looking for.
Entertainment Two weeks without TV, video games, Facebook, etc. could become boring. It is important to keep the family occupied with work as well as entertainment. Get a number of board games for the whole family to take part in.
Tackle general domestic repairs.
Do some research on what people in your family did in the evenings in years gone by.
During The Blackout (Priority)
Aspect Hints Make a plan
Electricity Regularly monitor your power consumption against your supply of fuel, gas, coal and wood. It will help to prioritise and to decide what to limit first if necessary. Ensure that the power sources available to you are all working as planned.
Replenish fuel supplies immediately – it may not be possible later.
Prioritise power consumption according to value, e.g. preparing food comes before computer.
Computer and telephone networks may still be working for a couple of hours or longer. Cellphone networks in particular can get overloaded quickly, possibly blocking communication. Make sure that the power is off for more than normal load shedding or some other temporary problem.
Determine the whereabouts of family members and activate your emergency plan on who goes where.
Notify friends and relatives where necessary, e.g. if their children are with you.
Water Water for drinking purposes always gets first priority, before bathing, washing and preparing food. First use the water most likely to become contaminated, e.g. tap water or open bottles of water. Replenish supply immediately, before it is too late. Even an extra bath could serve as a container.
Ensure water is safe before you drink or use it, and monitor supplies.
Ensure that all family members have enough to drink – do not overration.
Food Discard rather than get sick; don’t take chances with thawed food that could be contaminated. Regularly monitor consumption against supplies. Replenish supplies immediately – it may not be possible later.
First use items with the shortest shelf life, e.g. from the fridge and freezer.
Prepare regular hot meals and a delicacy or two for morale.
Work Family comes first, but both work and family are important. You will have to draw up the balance sheet yourself during a crisis. If you don’t go to work, try to contact your employer and clients from time to time.
If you do go to work, ensure that the time there is productive and useful
Plan how to catch up when the power comes back on again.
Transport Especially in the cities, traffic flow will be different – possibly very slow initially as everybody tries to get home and traffic lights are not working. Detours through residential areas can get busy when highways are clogged. Familiar routes could now be unsafe or inaccessible. Fuel replenishing is important, but it is best to get near your home first.
Find out what routes are still accessible and safe, and allow for delays.
Avoid unnecessary driving around.
Medical Medical service providers will experience many challenges. Do not trouble them unnecessarily. And remember: doctors and nurses also have homes – there is likely to be one in your area who will be able to help in an emergency. Replenish chronic medication immediately – it may not be possible later.
Make sure that medical help is indeed available where you thought it would be.
Prioritise keeping heat-sensitive medication cool.
Safety and
Employees of security companies may not be able to get to work. Traffic and other problems can quickly result in an interruption in normal guarding, patrolling and armed response. Alarms, gates, etc may not be working. Contact and join your local neighbourhood watch, or at least coordinate with your neighbours.
Keep emergency lighting, firearms, pepper spray, etc. ready and safe.
Make sure valuable items are properly locked away and out of sight.
During The Blackout (Additional)
Aspect Hints Make a plan
Hygiene With good, basic hygiene, many diseases can be avoided, which is important especially when medical help is difficult to access. Not only personal hygiene is important, but also hygiene where food is stored or handled, in washing areas
and around toilets.
Ensure that cutlery, kitchen equipment and food areas are cleaned regularly.
Do not spoil water reserves (e.g. swimming pools) by using it for washing, bathing or shaving.
Ensure all family members stay clean and brush their teeth, etc.
Sewerage It takes about 7 litres of water to flush a toilet. Less water could mean that one has to flush again or that pipes get clogged. Use enough water for the first flush – it will save water. Remember, however: 5 litres is one person’s entire ration for a day. Put used water (e.g. washing water) in a container (e.g. 5 litre bucket) to flush the toilet.
Block drainage holes and toilets as necessary, according to your situation.
If the ordinary toilet does not work, do bury all faeces, etc., e.g. in a pit toilet in the garden.
Refuse Huge volumes of refuse are non-perishable, such as plastic, cardboard, etc. By separating your perishable refuse, you can reduce your “problem refuse” to a very small volume. Remember that your neighbours’ refuse can become your problem as well, so help where you can. Separate “clean” refuse from left-overs to limit the space taken up by stinking refuse.
Offer to help your neighbours with their refuse if your capacity allows this.
Your fruit and meat refuse in particular should be well managed, e.g. seal or bury deep.
Communication Communication by telephone and email could be limited. If available, it should nevertheless be used sparingly to limit network overloading. Communication remains important, especially for safety and logistics, but also for socialising. Make contact with neighbours and socialise, but take care not to be a nuisance.
Join physical social networks in your area for news and support.
Listen to the radio to keep abreast of what is happening.
Community In everyday life, a community relies on the cooperation of its members for its progress. During an emergency this is even more important. Also remember that every crisis will come to an end eventually, and that you will be remembered for your actions. Be prepared for neighbours looking for help. See how and how much you can help.
To resolve conflict, go together to a respected third party and ask for a decision.
After a few days, organise a street market – someone is bound to have a surplus of something useful.
Money Bear in mind that money is not the only way to trade. One can also borrow, pledge, exchange, give and use alternative mediums of exchange to trade. Use your cash sparingly and withdraw extra cash if you still can.
Keep a record of everything you borrow, pledge or promise, and keep to agreements.
Be prepared to trade with other persons – both parties will be better off.
Entertainment Variation is the name of the game. Do not try to force everybody into singing, acting or playing games, etc. if they don’t want to do it – the aim of entertainment is enjoyment by all, not merely reducing boredom. Develop a routine of work and play, especially if there are children at home.
Make sure the family do things they enjoy, not necessarily always together.
Page through your old picture albums or repack boxes of old things.

Now read: Why load-shedding is back

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How to prepare for a total Eskom blackout