The unnecessary frailty of systems

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

The musical accompaniment to my composing a column, when I am doing so in the familiar comfort of my own home office (which is actually just an untidy corner of my bedroom), is usually something appropriately motivating.

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For example, classical music seems to go well with discussions about basic macroeconomics; when I am expounding on Philippine politics, music with a rougher edge—selections from the catalogs of bands like Black Flag or the Cramps, for instance—seem to make for a better soundtrack.

As I am composing this particular column, at my desk in the newsroom of The Times on a Thursday afternoon, my background music is the aggressive steady grunt of the building’s generator, called into service for the second day in a row to provide the electricity that is not presently available from the Meralco system. At least here, where critical business requirements justify the expense of running a generator, I can experience the 21st century; in my village, which was almost directly in the path of the eye of Wednesday morning’s Typhoon Glenda, we are spending our second day living in the 18th.

In a manner reminiscent of 2006’s Typhoon Milenyo, Glenda seemed to be particularly hard on Luzon’s electrical grid. At one point on Wednesday, according to a technician I spoke to, Meralco’s entire service area covering almost 5.2 million customers in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces was without power. Besides the damage inflicted on Meralco’s own system, the main supply grid operated by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) suffered serious damage as well, isolating Meralco from at least two power plants, and cutting off wide areas of the country as far south as Samar.

Although there is a temptation to be sympathetic toward Meralco, the NGCP, and smaller electric distributors in areas affected by Typhoon Glenda—it was, after all, a typhoon—the reality is the repair and restoration effort they are now struggling to complete should have been completely unnecessary. ‘Glenda’ was not an exceptional typhoon—formidable enough, certainly, but we have experienced worse in recent memory. It has been a few years since a typhoon has tracked directly across Metro Manila, or at least come within spitting distance of doing so, but again, that is something that is not without precedent. And, perhaps bitten by the horrifying experience of last year’s Typhoon Yolanda, both the government and the private sector seem to have made significant improvements in preparedness and response.

And yet, despite Typhoon Glenda being something relatively “normal” by local standards that the Philippines should have been able to withstand and recover from quickly, the most basic infrastructure systems—electricity and communications—for Metro Manila, the world’s sixth-largest megalopolis, and the surrounding region almost instantaneously collapsed. The loss of electrical power meant that cellular phone and internet communications soon followed, as back-up power to transmission sites was not sufficient for more than a brief outage of the main grid. Without power, all forms of business ground to a halt, leading to economic losses that have not been calculated, and probably never will be; without communications, the ability to manage recovery efforts, even the simple act of phoning or texting a friend or relative to let him or her know one’s family was okay or not (which is actually a key step in the recovery process), was severely hampered.

Obviously, there are shortcomings in hardening these systems against what should be considered a certain risk factor, and the service providers involved—Meralco, the NGCP, local electric cooperatives and other distribution utilities, and the major telecoms—deserve the criticism the sad state of affairs provokes. Whatever capital expenditures Meralco has had the option of pursuing on the back of its roughly P17 billion net income, they have obviously not involved investing in resilience, and the same charge can be laid against any of the other rent-seekers who are responsible for this country’s basic services. Whether they should be compelled to do so by regulatory authorities is debatable; I believe they should be, but on the other hand, I would also like to believe the huge sunk cost of repair work and the corresponding loss of regular income would be enough to encourage companies to be a little more forward-thinking.

Actual solutions to these kinds of problems, however, tend to move at a glacial pace; we can be as critical as we like, but the fact remains that we will all probably have to deal with the same circumstances many more times until anything resembling an improvement occurs.

Every weather-related calamity teaches us something; what Typhoon Glenda has taught us is that developing workable alternatives to conventional power and communications systems is a key part of risk management. Businesses simply cannot afford to be knocked out for days at a time because of weather events that happen several times a year; likewise, Filipino families are, like families everywhere, ill-equipped to deal with the twin losses of basic services and day-to-day incomes that episodes like Glenda cause.

Unfortunately, there are no prescriptive solutions; the needs of individual businesses and households differ, and so preparedness in this case first starts with everyone asking themselves: “What will I (or my business) do if there is an extended loss of electricity or communications services?” A growing number of Filipino businesses and families have taken to heart the exhortations of the government and other ins=titutions to prepare for disasters, and that’s good—we can probably attribute the relatively low human toll, tragic as any loss of life is, of this week’s typhoon to that heightened awareness. But dealing with the event is clearly only part of the job; the losses from the aftermath are not as obvious, but they are in their own way just as damaging. Finding ways to mitigate those, to reduce one’s reliance on systems that all too often prove more frail than they should be, is the necessary next step from merely surviving a calamity to being productive in spite of it.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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3 Comments

  1. Most transmission poles & towers of power & communication companies were destroyed because the engineering, design & construction of these infrastructures are done haphazardly, despite the Philippines having relatively more modern building codes. Unlike buildings (such as commercial or high profile residential or high-rise) and bridges, transmission poles & towers are oftenly engineered & designed by engineers who claims ‘they know about everything about how these structures responds and behaves’ by believing faithfully (and not critically analysing and interpret) the output of engineering softwares. Worse, the task of engineering & design of these structures are mostly relegated to engineering ‘newbies’ because these structures/projects are not ‘glamorous’ enough, or those desperate enough to accept these type of projects because the telcos and power companies don’t give enough premium to the engineering, design & construction of these ‘mission-critical’ infrastructures, often resulting in a compromised structural integrity and robustness. Moreover, building officials don’t give a damn about scrutinising these structures because building officials are ‘rubber-stamp’ bureaucrats who don’t know $hit about engineering & design of just about any structures, and are just waiting for you to pay them off so that they can issue the legally required document ‘Building Permit’.

  2. Power outage for no apparent reason has always been a part of the Filipino culture – even on clear days. It is sickening to hear the same answer repeated to me over and over again about “system upgrade” as their reason for me, a MERALCO customer, losing electricity supply on a bright clear day. I am even more surprised that we have electricity back after a day or two of Glenda. Over all, it is sickening to be a part of a culture that breeds failure.