‘I learned how to operate without electricity’: Ukraine’s power outage worsens

For Tetiana’s son, electricity is a matter of life and death.

He was born with a disability and requires electrically powered devices to help him breathe, eat and take his medicine.

“We are very dependent on electricity and without this bloody war life would be difficult but we would be able to cope,” Tetiana told the BBC.

Ukrainians are learning to endure long power outages as Russia continues to attack the country’s energy facilities.

Continued Russian air strikes have left previously unaffected areas of Ukraine without electricity for hours on end almost every day.

Tetiana, who lives in the southern port city of Odessa, said frequent blackouts make life extremely difficult as she needs to know the electricity supply is stable.

She has a gasoline-powered generator that needs to be constantly refueled, but must be shut down every six hours to cool down.

The power outage also affects mobile phone signals, making it difficult to call an ambulance for her son.

“Your child will have convulsions and turn blue and it can take 30 minutes or even an hour for an ambulance to arrive,” she said. “If we don’t give him oxygen he could die. I’m speechless.”

Tetiana’s neighbourhood recently lost power for 12 hours in one day.

For millions of Ukrainians, no electricity could mean no running water, air conditioning, elevators or life-saving equipment.

In the past three months alone, Ukraine has lost 9 gigawatts of generating capacity, according to state energy company Ukrenergo — more than a third of Ukraine’s capacity before the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Ukrenergo said that’s enough to power the entire Netherlands, or Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia combined, at peak consumption times.

“All state-owned thermal power plants have been destroyed. All our hydroelectric power plants have been damaged by Russian missiles and drones,” Ukrenergo spokeswoman Maria Tsaturian told the BBC.

Rising summer temperatures will encourage Ukrainians to turn on energy-guzzling air conditioners, further exacerbating the power shortage.

To deal with the power shortages, Ukrenergo has been forced to implement a nationwide blackout policy, resulting in power outages that last for hours every day.

As a result, millions of Ukrainians have become increasingly reliant on fuel-powered generators and large power banks.

Generators running on the streets of Kiev

Generators are becoming more and more common in Ukraine [Getty Images]

The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, is experiencing a prolonged power outage.

Roxolana was elected by residents of the 24-storey apartment building to help manage the building’s facilities.

She said life in a high-rise building is not easy as power outages also mean no running water on the upper floors.

“The elevators are not working, so mothers with children and people with disabilities have to wait and plan their outings based on when the electricity will come back on,” she added. “They have to stay inside for six hours straight, and elderly women cannot even go out to the shops to buy bread.”

Residents in high-rise buildings are stuck in muggy apartments because of a lack of air conditioning.

They also have no access to the safety of underground bunkers, making them more vulnerable to Russian airstrikes.

Volodymyr Stefanykh, a dentist in Zaporizhia, said appointments had to be rescheduled at the last minute and that the electricity sometimes went out during complex procedures.

“If something like this happens, we start up the generators and finish what we started. There is no other way. We can’t tell patients to come back tomorrow,” he says. “Just a few weeks ago, power outages became especially frequent. Of course, they are very disruptive.”

Volodymyr StefanykhVolodymyr Stefanykh

Dentist Volodymyr Stefanykh has to deal with a power outage during surgery [Volodymyr Stefaniv]

To perform emergency or less complicated surgeries during blackouts, Stefaniv uses a headlamp, a skill he learned and honed treating soldiers on the front lines, and which his company still offers to Ukrainian soldiers for free or at a steep discount.

“We can treat toothache and swelling without electricity. We have also learned how to perform surgery without electricity,” he said.

Ukrenergo’s Maria Tsaturian knows her company is facing a lot of anger for cutting power to so many customers so frequently and for so long, but she says it has no choice.

“We are at war. The energy sector is one of the targets of Russian terrorists, and the reason is clear: our whole life, our entire civilization, is based on electricity. If you destroy the enemy’s power grid, they will lose their economy and their livelihood,” she says.

“This is the price we pay for freedom.”

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