Off the Grid

Our facebook posts yesterday generated a little buzz, so now that we have a computer charged up and functional, we thought it important to explain what happened.  It’s important to note that we have no real official news source here in town.  There are no local newspapers or television stations, and, as far as we know, the only local radio station is a Wolaita-language radio, which we wouldn’t understand even if we did tune in.  Official news is usually distributed from speakers on a truck that drives around town.  The news we tend to rely on is simply word-of-mouth… and yesterday the word-of-mouth news was mostly conjecture.  But… here’s a little of what we know.

Yesterday morning at 8am, the electrical power sub-station in Soddo blew up and burned for about two hours.  Apparently, the sub-station involved some old equipment.  The power step-down / distributor unit (which is what initially blew up) was installed some 30-plus years ago.  The fire was eventually put out by towns-people with shovels throwing dirt on the step-down unit at the sub-station.  Because the electrical power-grid for much of the region directly surrounding us and south of us all passes through Soddo, the entire area (up to 150 km or so south of us) is now without electrical power.

There are a wide variety of opinions about just how long it may take to get Soddo and the surrounding area back up on the power grid.  We’ve heard everything from a couple of weeks to several months (one gentleman last night even predicted it could be up to a year… surely he’s crazy, right?).  From what we’ve heard, it all depends on whether or not the proper equipment can be found in country.  If a new power step-down / distributor unit must be imported from abroad, it could be awhile.  There will also be the problem of updating the rest of the sub-station equipment to function with a new step-down / distributor unit.

Now, living off the power grid for a while is not exactly the apocalypse.  After all, there are chunks of this country that exist without electrical power at all, Soddo pretty much shuts down after dark anyway, and even when we are on the grid, there are often hours at a time without power (especially during dry season… Ethiopia’s electric power is all hydro-generated).  We personally have lots of candles and a couple of gas stove-burners, the children’s home does most of its cooking on a wood or charcoal fire already, the office has a small gasoline generator to run computers, and, even with power, we never have hot-water.  It’s not the end of the world, but there will be problems that arise without power over the long-term.  Here are a few examples: there will likely be shortages of fuel because of the extra reliance on generators around town (the town already often runs out of fuel on the weekends before Monday fuel trucks arrive at the fuel stations).  The town will probably run out of candles at some point.  Charcoal and firewood prices will go up.  Flour may become scarce and expensive because all the grinding machines in town run on electric power (special 3-phase power that is hard to generate by gasoline generators).  There will also be some obvious personal inconveniences.  Cooking, heating water, reading in the evenings, charging computers and mobile phones… all of these things become more difficult without electricity.

The real issue goes back to our water situation here in Soddo.  As we’ve mentioned before, the children’s home is desperate these days for water.  It’s dry season, so our hand-pump well is dry (we sometimes squeeze a few buckets out of it each morning) and the town water department system only supplies water for a few hours per week.  We’ve been relying mostly on “donkey-water,” water carried in by yellow jerry cans on the backs of donkeys.  The absence of electric power in Soddo has just further compounded our water problems.  The sources of water for the town system are all deep wells scattered around the outskirts of the town.  These are not artesian wells, so water must be pumped out of these deep wells and pumped through the water lines to distribute the water around down.  All of the pumps are electric.  No electricity, no water pumps… no water.

I know what you’re thinking… is that really such a big deal if the children’s home was only getting a few hours of town water per week anyway?  The answer is yes, for two reasons.  First, though we have only been getting water from the town a few hours per week, during those few hours, the compound goes crazy filling every bucket, barrel and tank we can find so that we have stored water to last us up to a day after the water is turned off.  No town water means we have no water to store up, and thus even greater reliance on donkey water.  Second, even the donkey water usually comes from town taps.  There are public water taps throughout the town connected to the water department system.  When one part of town doesn’t have water, donkey water carriers fill up their jerry cans at a tap in another part of town and transport it to areas that need it.  With the water department out of commission, there will be no water running at these town taps, thus the donkey water carriers will now all have to rely on streams and natural springs.  Because it’s dry season, most of the streams are pretty dried up, and even the natural springs are very low.  The price of donkey water is bound to go up considerably because of scarcity, higher demand and the greater distances the donkey water carriers have to travel.  The quality of the donkey water will be further reduced because of relying on surface springs and low-water streams.

A number of people have asked how they can help in some way.  We greatly appreciate that people are thinking about us and asking to help.  We will definitely need to tap into some above-the-budget funds to cover the unexpected costs of paying more for donkey water, buying bottled water for drinking, buying fuel for the generator, and paying higher costs for charcoal, firewood and flour.  We’ll be spending today trying to get a better sense of what this is all going to look like and we’ll be discussing the situation of funds further with Aerie Africa.  We’ll post an update by tomorrow morning regarding specific ways people can help out.

In the meantime, together with a few friends around town, we’ve started a little betting pool.  Each of us has submitted 50 birr to the pot with our best guess of when Soddo will be back up and running with electricity.  The winner, he or she who guesses the closest, will take the pot.  So far the most optimistic submission has been Feb. 29th, while the most pessimistic has been May 15th.  Feel free to join in the fun and let us know your prediction.

6 responses to “Off the Grid

  1. Wow. I should never take for granted the blessings I have here. That is very harsh living. I will be looking for your post of how I can join in the help. I couldn’t imagine going without water or electricity. I am so accustomed to creature comforts.

    And just for fun…I’ll predict that you Soddo will be back up and running with electricity and water on Feb. 21st. (I’d like to predict tomorrow).

  2. Wow, I’m really sorry to hear about the hardships your town is facing. I’m keeping you guys, the kids, and your neighbors in my prayers and I am looking forward to hearing about how I can help. I think the really devastating thing about this is how it’s just a reminder of how many people in the world go year round without electricity and clean, running water. Makes the things we complain about out here seem really pathetic. Thanks for explaining the situation. Here’s hoping your electricity and water come back soon!

  3. Hang in there! I hope things get up and running for you sooner rather than later. I will guess March 17–with the help of St. Patrick!


  4. Our guesses are:
    Bryan: 1 October
    India: 7 April
    John Z.: 3 March
    Daniel: 9 April
    Josiah: 15 March
    and our least optimistic member…
    JoyAnna: 1 December

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