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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Lines down and lights out

It’s amazing how dependant many of us have become on being constantly online. At each of my last three jobs I have had always-on internet access, and over time I have come to dread being ‘disconnected’. Between emails, instant messaging, syndicated news feeds, forums and the odd bit of random surfing, I am accustomed to being bathed in information and communication. Today, when I came in to work, I discovered our international connection is down, probably due to something wrong with IS’s infrastructure, but I prefer to blame Telkom since it’s more fun and they are evil incarnate after all. None of my IM services are connecting, I can’t retrieve my Gmail (all my non-work-related communication is through Gmail) and even soe of the sites I like to check in the morning, which are hosted overseas, are unavailable to me, and it really surprises me how unsettling it is. I mentioned in a previous post that I am addicted to forums; I think it would be more accurate to say I am addicted to being connected. Not having access to my warm info-soup feels like walking around in a desert with no sign of life for miles.

This makes me wonder what it will be like when Gauteng (and the rest of South Africa) start experiencing power cuts, as Cape Town has been doing. If being cut off from the internet is difficult, living without something that has become almost as essential as air and water in our everyday lives-electricity- will be all but impossible. There are many sides to the story, and as is the case in any great political or economical disaster in this country, there are fingers pointing in all directions but no one is willing to take any responsibility upon themselves. A number of ‘experts’ have claimed that Eskom (and the government) have been warned of the inability of our current electricity infrastructure to continue to meet the needs of our growing population and economy. It is reminiscent of a scene out of any Hollywood disaster flick, where a lone, badly dressed, bespectacled scientist tries to drum the danger of an immanent natural disaster into the heads of short-sighted politicians. In fact it’s probably very similar to the kinds of sessions attended by President George Bush before hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico and shattered thousands of lives.

Well, these same scientists that supposedly warned the government and power utility of impending local power shortages are now trying to warn them again- about countrywide shortages. Have the politicians learned anything? Of course not, they are still denying the possibility in the press (privately, they’re probably stocking up on baked beans, gas canisters and mineral water). So what exactly happens when the lights go out in Gauteng? Our economy has already lost millions from Cape Town’s periodic outages, and number of large businesses in that city pales when compared to those in Johannesburg, Pretoria and their surrounding areas. A single day without power in this region, just from a business perspective alone, could cause havoc. That is before considering the impact on healthcare, residential homes and the transport system.

Surely the responsible thing to do would be to acknowledge the problem and at least give business and individuals the opportunity to plan ahead. The really scary thing is that the CT outages happened in mid-summer. As far as power consumption goes, this is the ‘slow period’. We are heading into winter (and if recent cold snaps are anything to go by, it’s going to be a VERY cold winter), traditionally the time when power consumption skyrockets-and when a lack of electricity has the biggest potential to be fatal. At least by admitting that there might be a problem and warning people in advance, there is a better chance that businesses and individuals can be prepared for the eventuality. If people start preparing now, essential items like blankets and alternative heating and cooking systems can start to be sold and replenished early on. If people are only informed about cuts by realizing that the lights are out, there will be a mad rush for supplies (especially with the horror stories arising from the Cape Town outages).

Why is it that our government and large companies insist in sticking their heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge problems and plan for the future? HIV/AIDS debacle anyone?



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