State of disaster in the Karoo after a week-long power outage

Henry

The Karoo Highlands municipality has declared a state of disaster after week-long power outages caused serious disruption and paralyzed practically the entire municipal area.

The local authority serves the Frasersburg, Sutherland and Williston districts. Several other towns – Sutherland, Roggeveld, Laingsburg, Ladismith, Leeu-Gamka, Swartberg, Merweville, Matjiesfontein, Prince Albert, Fraserburg and surrounding areas – are also without power.

The enormous outage was caused when several main mast power poles in the vicinity of Laingsburg blew over on Saturday due to gale-force winds and heavy rain.

It will take some time to recover – presumably not until next Thursday.

In the meantime, Eskom has called in teams from the Eastern Cape to help local Eskom technicians to repair the giant outage as soon as possible. These crews have already arrived in the area and are working non-stop to repair damaged infrastructure.

At this stage, the work involves excavating, assembling and repairing structures, as well as removing structures that have collapsed, Eskom said.

Caught off guard

Riaan Geel, a FF Plus council member of the Karoo Highlands municipality, says the roughly 20,000 km² may be one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country, but the economy is just as dependent on electricity as any other part of the country.

“In fact, because towns are so remote, a crisis can be more difficult to cope with,” says Geel.

“The economy is largely cashless, with even social allowance being paid electronically. Payments are made by withdrawing cash from ATMs, or by using a card to pay at payment points. With a prolonged power outage it no longer works. The situation in Fraserburg is getting dire.

“Those who do have a generator rarely have fuel for more than one day’s expected load shedding. So only those with cash can keep their fridges and freezers. Water purification (for drinking and for sewage) stops and drinking water cannot be pumped to reservoirs.”

The local authority said in a notice on Facebook to residents of Fraserburg and Sutherland that the “water situation is under control” and water is being delivered with the help of generators.

However, Geel says that even the municipality was poorly prepared for the scale of the crisis.

“Only after several days were appropriate equipment and operators brought in to supply water to the community. Drinking water is now available to everyone, although it is still a problem to get washing water.

“Frozen products first thawed, but with temperatures high in the 30s, they can’t stay fresh either. Businesses are currently selling it at half price to those with cash, but some residents fear spoilage has already set in.”

Geel says even firewood, which is now the only available energy source, is already not abundant in the Karoo.

Disaster declaration unlocks aid

“This is a disaster that was made worse by emergency systems, equipment and general maintenance that were not designed for it. As always, the suffering experienced by poor people is the worst, because they have few reserves.”

According to him, there has been little intervention from the provincial or national government so far.

“The Karoo Highlands municipal council met on Friday and declared Fraserburg and Sutherland disaster areas. This was confirmed by the Namaqua District and Northern Cape Province.

“This declaration unlocks emergency funds from national government that should ease the situation. So far, the local municipality has spent almost a million rand on it, which is unaffordable for such a small municipality.”