/ 6 December 2022

How Johannesburg water and electricity woes affect hospitals

The hospital may be shut down as healthcare workers protest the lack of compensation for working extra hours.
Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg,

At night, Palesa Mgazi*, a doctor at Lenasia South District Hospital in the south of Johannesburg, regularly puts patients on drips in darkness.

There is no beeping from machines that check vital signs in the emergency department where she works because they don’t work without electricity.

She has to think on her feet. Many patients coming through the doors need to be hooked up to machines that monitor their body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels. Others need to be put onto a ventilator. 

But during late November’s load-shedding — or days in that month when there was no power — she couldn’t use such equipment, because there was no diesel to fuel the backup generators.

Lenasia South Hospital is not on the list of hospitals that are exempted from load-shedding, according to the health department’s spokesperson, Foster Mohale.

Ventilators are the biggest problem. The machines have about half an hour’s battery life after the power goes out, Mgazi says.

After that, doctors have to simulate the patient’s breathing manually, using a process called bag mask ventilation.To do this, a health worker holds a mask connected to an air-filled bag over the patient’s mouth and squeezes the bag rhythmically to pump oxygen into their airways.

Mgazi spoke to Bhekisisa on her way back from work after a night shift. She was exhausted. 

“We only have two doctors in the emergency unit at a time,” she said, “so if one has to ‘bag’ a patient, there’s only one doctor left [to do everything else]. I don’t know what we’ll do if, one day, two patients need ventilation [at the same time].”  

While the patient is being helped to breathe, someone has to contact bigger hospitals nearby to find out whether there are beds available for those who need more advanced treatment than Lenasia can offer.

Easier said than done, Mgazi notes: the doctor on call would have to go to a place where there’s a cell phone signal, which mostly disappears at the hospital during power outages, as does the use of the facility’s landlines. 

All this with no guarantee that there will be any water, which hospitals use lots of to clean equipment, wash laundry and keep the facility itself clean.

What is behind the chaos? Four layers of government collapse, according to sources at the hospital.

  1. The fire

A fire that broke out at a Lenasia substation on 4 November plunged parts of Lenasia South into darkness for days. While technicians were working to fix the damage, a large circuit breaker blew up because equipment at a supporting substation had been vandalised, according to a City Power statement.

Power was only fully restored to Lenasia South on 8 November, said Nickolaus Bauer, deputy director of communications in the office of the Johannesburg mayoral committee that deals with infrastructure issues.

But residents of Lenasia South faced renewed power outages later in the month, when the substation tripped. Bauer says this was caused by an overhead line fault on the Eskom infrastructure serving the substation.

This second power outage left the Lenasia South Hospital without electricity for a day, say hospital staff members.  

  1. The failing power utility

By 2 December, South Africa had 179 days with scheduled outages this year, with each day having more outages on average than in previous years. As a result, by September, South Africa had already experienced more loadshedding in 2022 than in any other year.

Andre de Ruyter, the chief executive officer of the country’s power utility, Eskom, said earlier in the year that the country’s energy problems are a result of poor maintenance and sabotage of power stations.

Following public pressure from health workers at state facilities, 77 hospitals around the country are now exempt from load-shedding.

In Gauteng, the list of facilities includes Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and Helen Joseph Hospital. Health workers at those facilities told Bhekisisa that power cuts have ceased since the government’s announcement.

Along with the rest of the country, the Lenasia South Hospital had stage four load-shedding during parts of November, which sometimes left it without power for up to seven and a half hours a day.

  1. The fuel

The hospital has two back-up generators, which are supposed to support the facility during scheduled blackouts. When the Lenasia South substation first broke down on 4 November, these generators provided electricity to the hospital.

But for most of November, there was no diesel to run them, says a hospital worker who wants to remain anonymous. This left the hospital without power during load shedding and also for part of the period when the substation tripped.

The reason? The Gauteng health department hadn’t paid the people in charge of making sure there’s enough fuel for the generators, according to the source.

But in response to questions from Bhekisisa, Mogeru Morewane, the chief director of the Johannesburg health district, said the diesel delivery issue happened because loadshedding and other outages had created a high demand for generator fuel.

As a result of all this, Lenasia District Hospital didn’t have electricity for some hours in November, she says. 

  1. The pipes

Johannesburg’s water woes have been another problem.

In the last week of November, Mgazi says the hospital faced water outages every second day for a few hours at a time, though there were trickles of water in some parts of the hospital. 

Morewane confirmed that the facility had water supply issues in November, which she said was due to scheduled water outages in the Lenasia area by Johannesburg Water.

To fix the problem, Joburg Water brought in water tankers to fill the water reservoirs, she says.

Benoît le Roy, who heads the South African Water Chamber, said Johannesburg has not invested enough in up-keep of the city’s water infrastructure. So, water that has already been treated leaks out of the faulty pipes.

“Load-shedding also exacerbates the problem,” says Le Roy. Reservoirs need to be at least 60% full to keep users’ taps from running dry. 

“Electric pumps are used to fill the reservoirs to reasonable levels. With load-shedding, the pumps don’t run long enough to keep up the water levels.”

For hospitals, water outages are a nightmare, says another doctor at the hospital. “Toilets don’t flush, so patients can’t even use the bathroom.”

Mgazi concludes: “We can’t clean anything without water, so there’s just blood on the floors in the emergency room.” – Additional reporting by Joan van Dyk.

*Not her real name. Sources didn’t want to be identified because of fear of losing their jobs, as government hospital workers aren’t allowed to speak to the media without permission from the provincial government.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.