Saturday, July 4, 2009

We've Got the Power

If I could pass along only one piece of advice to new VSO volunteers, it would be this: never walk into a dark room in your bare feet. Darkness acts as an invitation for all of the critters previously in hiding to come out and play, so the potential for stepping on one of them tends to increase exponentially when night falls. I haven’t actually felt the sensation of a cockroach between my toes yet, but I’ve come close enough on a few occasions that my flip-flops are now mandatory footwear whenever I’m in our flat.

But this isn’t meant to be a continuation of the previous blog entry’s lament about the various pests that share our flat. Rather, it’s meant to highlight the importance of having a reliable power supply to shine a light in the darkness to thwart the invasion, if only momentarily. In Nigeria, the supply of electricity was notoriously bad, and I essentially lived a year under lantern light. Power in my village would be available so infrequently that days would pass without any sign of its sustained viability, so its sudden appearance was a cause for celebration, like the greeting of a visitor too long absent from the home. In Bangladesh, the situation is an improvement over those days, but it’s still far from perfect.

The demand for electricity here regularly outstrips supply, with the result being the practice of load-shedding at various points during the day. Load-shedding is the euphemism given to planned blackouts, and it is a necessary evil to level demand and supply. Depending on where one is in the country, the number and length of these blackouts vary. Certain neighbourhoods in Dhaka may lose power three or four times per day for an hour or two. Once one is outside of the capital city, the situation generally gets worse. In Chittagong, electricity tends to be cut at least four or five times per day and the outages usually last two hours or more. Compared to Nigeria, this is a somewhat more tolerable position to be in, if only because the power makes a welcome appearance during the course of each day. But this glass-half-full view of the crisis is not surprisingly uncommon among our colleagues.

In an effort to combat the problem, the newly elected government has recently taken the rather drastic step of changing the clocks for the first time in Bangladesh’s history. The use of Daylight Saving Time is such a common practice in most parts of Canada that it’s taken for granted that the clocks will be moved forward at some point in the Spring. For most people, the extra hour of daylight makes for a pleasant addition to a summer’s evening. In Bangladesh, the hope was that the added hour would encourage people to delay flipping the switch to turn on their lights, thereby saving some strain on the system. Asking people to change their clocks for the first time in their lives is no small matter, and the discussions with the public leading up to the planned event on June 20th were fascinating. People were understandably confused about the idea that one hour could simply vanish from their day, only to reappear months later. The pessimist in me was anticipating a disaster on June 20th, but to the credit of the government, the changeover happened without major incident. Unfortunately, early reports indicate that it also has had little impact on power consumption, and the rolling blackouts continue as before.

The reason for this seems to be that the demand for power is driven not so much by the need for light as for other things, such as air conditioners and fans, and these are not as dependent on the light of day. Kristel and I can testify to this fact. The disappearance of light is troublesome, but it can be replaced with lanterns or flashlights as needed. It’s the absence of fans that makes life miserable. The heat wave of the past two months has been unlike anything that we’ve experienced before, so a power cut was always met with a groan, especially in the middle of the night, because we knew the temperature would soon skyrocket in the flat. As a result, we began to address the problem in the best way we could – by wearing as few clothes as possible. Stripping down to our underwear before sitting down to dinner became so routine that one would think we were living at the Playboy Mansion. We took care to draw the curtains to avoid scandalizing our neighbours, but any glimpses they may have been able to take before the drapes were drawn likely confirmed in their minds that all Westerners are shameless Dionysians.

Sadly, our life in the flat was nowhere near as decadent as our neighbours might have imagined. In fact, the combination of sleepless nights and constant sweating had reduced us to a pair of smelly zombies (as opposed to the fragrant ones, I suppose) by the end of April. With the prospect of another two months of heat before the start of the monsoon season in June, we knew the chances of one or both of us snapping were quite high. Since a straitjacket would likely be frowned upon as inappropriate office attire, we decided to take action. We pooled our first quarterly payments from VSO and invested in an Independent Power Supply or IPS. And the impact it has had on our lives has been nothing short of transformational.

The IPS is a backup power supply that is the size of a car battery. It’s designed to turn on as soon as the main power switches off, so it becomes the primary power source in the event of a blackout. When the main power is on, it uses the existing electricity to charge itself. Though it’s not large enough to supply electricity to the entire flat, it does have enough juice to keep the fans and lights on in three rooms until the main power returns. To put it simply, it’s the most brilliant investment I’ve ever made, which perhaps isn’t saying much, since my retirement portfolio is largely dependent on my anticipated earnings from the Lotto 6/49. But nevertheless, it has made a huge difference for us. When the power fails now, the changeover is almost instantaneous and we barely notice the switch. We do tend to shut off more lights and hunker down in one room to conserve the power in the IPS, but that’s a very small inconvenience. And we can now sleep through the night, thus preserving our relationship and sanity.

If there’s any kind of a drawback to this newfound power independence, it’s that we’ve become addicted to our IPS. We’re heat weaklings now. An upcoming trip to Dhaka for VSO training presented us with a level of anxiety we hadn’t known before, as the possibility of staying in the VSO visitor flat where (Gasp!) the fans sometimes stop running, made us reconsider whether we really needed to learn anything new ever again. We eventually relented and made the journey, but the possibility of buying a seat on the bus for our IPS briefly crossed my mind. In the end, we were saved by a friend who offered us a room in his beautiful flat with backup power and air conditioning. Meeting up with the VSO volunteers based in Dhaka, we knew we had made the right choice. The temperatures in the city over the past month had been even warmer than in Chittagong, and many looked haggard from too many sleepless nights. When the power clicks off in the night, most give up hope of sleeping and try to use their time for reading or working until the fans start moving again. When we revealed that we had added an IPS to our household, people responded so enthusiastically that one would have thought we just had a baby. I almost regretted not having some pictures of it in my wallet to share with them.

So, the IPS has vastly improved our quality of life in Chittagong. Unfortunately, the cost of the IPS, though an affordable three hundred dollars for us, puts it out of reach for the majority of Bangladeshis, who must continue to rely on the regular power grid for their supply. And the lack of power is not just an inconvenience for the local people; it can have a much more devastating impact. Closely tied to the power supply is the availability of water, as many pumps for the neighbourhoods run on electricity. When the power stops, so does the water for many areas. Combined with the escalating temperatures, this can result in dire consequences, and stories abound of protests by concerned people frustrated with their inability to access water when they need it the most. The government has responded with promises of projects to tap energy from new initiatives, but as can be seen from the limited benefits enjoyed from their embrace of Daylight Saving Time, a quick-fix solution is unlikely to provide the panacea for the current crisis. It seems that Bangladeshis will continue to wait for some time to get much-needed relief from the heat and darkness.


Anonymous said...

We woke up to ice in the icebox of the Pink Flat refrigerator.. oops larder... for 2 days the week before last.

Oh yes - the Governor was visiting the area....

Since he left we haven't had enough to charge my electric toothbrush in 5 days and I am not exaggerating.

However the rainy season brings its own air conditioning...

Warm greetings from Nigeria, Cicely

cochrane said...

Maybe we can work something out here: my last two weeks of vacation (Ontario/New Brunswick) have been plagued but constant rain and cool temperatures. Would be willing to exchange ~40% of rain for 15% of your temperatures. Let me know.

Sadly, I'm back to work--the land of extensively-managed HVAC tomorrow. If I don't come back, you can have my fans.


Anonymous said...

A whiff of romance in a vision of naked dinner [puns intended].

There is something salacious about naked sweaty bodies sitting in the twilight facing each other before the evening meal....or maybe my mind is simply in the gutter and I should be ashamed of myself. Either way, that's the vision I embrace from your story about (electrical) power.

There is a TV commercial that recently ran in Canada: Two handsome young people sit on the roof sharing a pasta meal by candlelight. She tosses her pasta at his chest; he takes his shirt off [nice]. He tosses pasta at her; she takes her shirt off [nicer]. She tosses her pasta at his crotch...the next thing they are in the clutches [really nice]...all to sell pasta.

We do not "suffer" from regular blackouts, although Toronto is known for brown-outs. Power Corp tends to "slow down" the grid in midday to limit use. While office HVAC systems don't seem to be affected, one notices blips on the computer screen. Power surge bars are recommended unless your company has an ERP system controlled by IT nerds.

I am lucky in that I am often on the road whenever there is a real blackout back home. I recall sitting at the Uni Club in Sydney, Australia, one summer morning and seeing headlines -- Canada plunged into total darkness. interesting. I wonder what's happening to the food in my freezer?

As smug as this sounds, I really haven't the faintest idea what it is like to be in a blackout. The building where I live is concrete; when the electric heating goes down for a brief [45 minute] power-outage in winter, the apartment goes damp-frigid in 20 minutes. Concrete doesn't retain heat. A fire in the living room fireplace, while romantic [sans sweat], only helps within a 20 foot radius. Duvets are god-sends.

It's the helplessness that boggles the mind. Everything is electric, and once it goes, so ends the world -- cooking, keeping warm, watching TV, reading, working on the computer, etc.

There's a fascination with this helplessness, before frustration and fear settle in. We are thrown back onto our own resources to survive in the big city without power, and fear ratches up as we realize it isn't easy. There's a vulnerability here, a weakness that we are unprepared for.

To highlight the "misery", I live in a posh neighbourhood in Toronto, famous for multi-million dollar mansions, people with too much money and toys. A temporary blackout is a shock worthy of a Bastille riot [if Canadians were prone to riot]. How could such a thing happen in such a modern city to such important people?

It's the toys, you see, and the peak usage they get that drains the grid. In a world where the "privileged" breathe entitlement, blackouts are ironically expected from over-indulgence. In lesser privileged parts of the city, no such problems arise; people don't have those toys to fill in their bored lives. The price of ennui is occasional blackouts in your posh neighbourhood. So different from a country where blackouts are part of the warp and woof of everyday life.

I would never intentionally choose to live where life entails regular blackouts, but it says something about the survivor instincts of rich and poor. Whining [the voice of the rich] doesn't ensure survival. While sleep depravation is never desirable, coping mechanisms bring strength to character.

I didn't intend this to be a diatribe. I wanted to continue on about sweaty naked dinners, but decided a moral high road was preferrable. This doesn't make me a better person; it just demonstrates I am psychologically unprepared for my August trip to Shanghai. I dread the great leveller of heat and humidity, and do not envy you at all. I am in denial...unrelenting heat is so breathless in a non-sexy way.