Around the world, local utility suppliers hadn't planned for a pandemic

In this photograph taken on on January 19, 2020, the Payra Power Plant is seen near Patuakhali, in Bangladesh. (AFP via Getty Images)

Amid the widespread recognition given to health care workers and grocery store employees during the global coronavirus crisis, there’s a group of essential workers who mostly have been overlooked: those keeping the electric lights on, the water faucets flowing, and the sewers in working order, all over the world.

As the Covid-19 pandemic set in earlier this year, utility providers quickly confronted a daunting new reality. With their services more vital than ever, maintaining the flow of power and water without disruption would require keeping employees safe and able to work. At the same time, as businesses and residential customers faced closures and job losses, utility bills would go unpaid.

“There is no existing playbook that we have to reference, to give us direction to move through this crisis,” says Gary King, chief workforce officer of SMUD, which powers Sacramento County, California, and is one of the largest community-owned electric utilities in the United States.

Around the world, the organisations that provide electricity may be publicly owned by a town, county or region; owned by a nation, like ESKOM in South Africa; investor-owned, or privately owned. Representing a variety of companies, industry leaders who participated in an international series of debriefs convened by Clarion Energy said that while they had planned for typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters, most had not anticipated a pandemic.

“One thing is to think, or design a system. Another thing is to run such an enormous experiment, like having 4,000 people working from home,” said Leonardo D’Acquisto, head of institutional relations at Italgas, an Italian distributor of natural gas. “I think when we designed our platform, we didn’t really have this idea in mind. But still, it proved to be feasible”.

Transitioning the vast majority of employees to working at home, and moving operations to digital platforms, were some of the first decisions made by power providers, in addition to committing to continue service for all customers (although in many cases, that was decided for them by their governments). Another shared experience is the decline in demand for power.

Some demand has moved to homes rather than businesses, but still, with major industries and corporate centers closed, providers report electric use decreases ranging from 5% to 15% in parts of the US, up to 26% in parts of India.

That means less revenue, as well. For example, PNM Resources, which delivers electricity to around 790,000 homes and businesses in New Mexico and Texas, reported a net loss of $15.3 million for the first quarter of 2020, compared to a net gain of $18.7 million for the first quarter of 2019. PNM is investor-owned.

Industry leaders have not yet said how they plan to manage these financial hits. “Public power is currently not receiving assistance from the federal government but will be seeking direct assistance for those utilities that are negatively impacted by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Desmarie Waterhouse, vice president for the American Public Power Association, which represents publicly owned, nonprofit power companies in the US.

“The full extent of this may not be seen for weeks – or even months – and financial concerns may seem secondary when life safety is on the line, but public power utilities must pay their workers as well as the costs of fuel that generates electricity and equipment when repairs are needed,” says Waterhouse. “We are not aware of any members currently furloughing their staff; however, that it is a possibility if the pandemic continues for months and customer non-payments continue to increase”.

In the Philippines, Quezon Power closed its offices and kept only its power production plant open, but in lockdown mode, said managing director Frank Thiel. Normal days see 265 staff members and over 300 contractors coming and going, to serve 6.6 million customers. Now, fewer than 200 people are living at the plant and running it, while others work from home.

“Morale remains very high, despite the fact that we are secluded inside,” Thiel said. It may have helped that Quezon chose to pay all staff and contractors their full salaries, including advancing the timing of payment, and adding “hazard duty pay” for those within the lockdown.

Part of making the transition to working at home has been a quick shift away from paper-based processes, sector leaders said. Billing and banking are now being done digitally. Meetings are taking place online. These types of changes will likely stay in place, post-coronavirus. And many companies report some silver linings of goodwill amid the tumult.

“We have found the consumers are cooperating a lot, which has made our job much easier,” said Rajesh Bansal, senior executive vice president of BSES Rajdhani Power Ltd. in Delhi. For example, Bansal said, customers are asking if they can be talked through performing service tasks within their homes so that company personnel don’t have to physically enter. “The mutual trust has made things much easier,” Bansal said. Within company ranks, too, being forced to do things differently has led employees to collaborate and communicate across departments more than before. “There is an unprecedented willingness to cooperate,” said Roberto Zangrandi, secretary general of European Distribution System Operators (E.DSO), an association of electricity operators in Europe.

Due to climate change, power providers have known that changes were coming to their industry even without a virus; the crisis seems to be connecting and speeding those changes. Rather than continuing to burn coal and gas to make electricity, leaders already were looking toward renewable energy sources and participating in the various “greening” plans taking shape around the world.

“We do not really see any problem affecting the long-term strategy of decarbonisation,” said D’Acquisto, of Italgas. “This will push toward a digitalised world. Decarbonisation will be enabled by more digitalisation of networks”.

Several sector leaders predict that demand could take months or years to rebound to previous levels. Ravi Krishnaswamy, senior vice president for energy and environment at Frost & Sullivan in Singapore, noted the blue skies that people everywhere are seeing due to the global decrease in pollution. To him, that means more impetus for climate action, not less. “There should be a lot of demand [for greener solutions] from people around the world,” Krishnaswamy said.

And just as the coronavirus has heightened awareness of personal hygiene and handwashing, “cyber hygiene” must be a higher priority as well, they said. Without the security provisions built into office computer networks, cyber vulnerability could increase with more people working from home on their own equipment.

“What we do is critical and essential for our society,” said Raymond Sandoval, spokesman for PNM Resources. “All those doctors and health care workers, all those firefighters and police, all those folks who are on the front lines: they can’t do their job if we don’t do our job, if we don’t provide that reliable electricity. So it’s really important to understand how we protect the grid.

“In this day and age, we’ve seen a lot of cyberattacks,” Sandoval said, “trying to get into our networks, trying to wreak havoc, by trying to see if they can take out the electrical grid by putting everybody in the dark during this horrible time. So you have to be ever-vigilant not just of the physical, but also of the virtual”.

Karen Loew is a freelance journalist based in New York City. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.