Venezuela blackout 2019

People collect water from a sewage canal at the river Guaire in Caracas on 11 March, 2019 as a massive power outage continues affecting some areas of the country. Photo: CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ / AFP

Venezuela’s blackout: A terrifying glimpse into an Eskom grid collapse

Venezuela was plunged into darkness last week, offering a dystopian view of what a country looks like when a power grid collapses.

Venezuela blackout 2019

People collect water from a sewage canal at the river Guaire in Caracas on 11 March, 2019 as a massive power outage continues affecting some areas of the country. Photo: CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ / AFP

On Thursday, 7 March 2019, Venezuela was plunged into darkness. The country’s power system went down and most parts, including the capital Caracas, was left in the dark.

It’s the worst blackout in the country’s history.

The chaos that has engulfed the South American nation offers a glimpse into what might happen should Eskom suffer the same fate. The South African power utility warned on Tuesday, 12 March, that there was a high risk that load shedding could return.

Energy analyst Ted Blom previously warned that the Stage 4 blackouts that plagued the country back in February meant South Africa could face disaster.

Many experts believe that the recently approved tariff increases won’t do much to remedy the situation.

So, what would it look like if the worst happened and the Eskom grid collapsed? Venezuela’s crisis offers a real-life glimpse into just how terrifying the situation could be.

Power cuts across Venezuela paints a grim picture

By Sunday, power had not been restored. Reports sounded like something from a dystopian novel. Sporadic looting, patients begging doctors to be kept alive and people living in fear of what the New York Times described as “being on the verge of social implosion”.

“We’re going to arrive at a moment when we’re going to eat each other,” Zuly González, 40, a resident of Caracas’s Chacao neighbourhood, told the NY Times.

Cause of the Venezuelan blackout and power partly restored

An “unspecified fault” was largely reported to be the problem but the country’s president and ministers blamed “sabotage and cyberattacks organized by the United States and the opposition”. These claims have not been backed up by any evidence.

Many energy experts in the country dismissed these accusations, saying instead that it was down to years of corruption and lack of investment in the sector.

One of the attempts to restart the grid led to the explosion of a secondary power station over the weekend.

Some areas did have power in patches, but the issues are far from over and has been widespread across the country.

Even the National Assembly’s emergency session fell victim to the blackout, as the electricity supply failed an hour into the meeting.

“We cannot turn away from this tragedy our country is going through,” said opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself acting president in January, triggering a power struggle with Maduro in the oil-rich South American country of 30 million.

Hospitals hit by the blackout

AFP reported the story of Alfredo Quintero, whose kidneys failed five years ago. He needs dialysis three times a week just to stay alive.

He was connected to a hemodialysis machine when the lights went out.

Luckily, though, Quintero managed to take advantage of a brief resumption of electricity in parts of Caracas on Sunday to get the desperately needed blood purification treatment.

But, according to reports, others weren’t so lucky and at least 15 kidney dialysis patients have died so far, as claimed by a local NGO.

Equally disturbing is the video that surfaced of hospital staff having to use food trays and cardboard to keep babies cool as the power shut down.

Witnesses described scenes of chaos at several hospitals as people tried to move sick relatives in the dark to clinics with better emergency power facilities.

Marielsi Aray, a patient at the University Hospital in Caracas, died after her respirator stopped working.

“The doctors tried to help her by pumping manually, they did everything they could, but with no electricity, what were they to do?” asked Jose Lugo, her distraught uncle.

Generators at the JM de Rios children’s hospital in downtown Caracas failed to kick-in when the blackout hit, said Gilbert Altuvez, whose eight-year old boy is among the patients.

“The night was terrible. Without light. Total madness,” he said.

Horrors of the morgue

The putrid odor of rotting flesh hung around the entrance to Caracas’ main Bello Monte morgue on Friday where refrigerators had stopped working and worried relatives gathered outside, waiting to be allowed to bury their dead.

Basic services out of action

The impact is devastating on almost every single part of daily life. Sellers were only taking cash, either in dollars or bolivars – a rare sight in a country used to digital payments, given the scarcity of hard currency.

Shopkeepers and residents were battling to keep their produce fresh, with restaurants either preparing what they have or preparing to throw everything out.

Traffic lights went out and the subway system ground to a halt, triggering gridlock in the streets and huge streams of angry people trekking long distances to get home from work. Many were without water. Telephone services and access to the internet were also knocked out.

Venezuelans are wearily accustomed to blackouts. They have been common in the west of the oil-rich country for years, but have eventually spread to Caracas and other areas.

According to UN figures, some 2.7 million Venezuelans have left since 2015, when the economic crisis started to spiral out of control.