7 Years of Famine and 7 Years of Plenty

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My late grandfather who served in the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in Burma used to tell us stories about life at the war front. About fields littered with fallen combatants, and about soldiers having to drink urine to quench parched throats when they ran out of water in the trenches, with enemy troops lurking around. That is just how important water can be.

To give it a further thought, how come human existence is possible on planet Earth and yet impossible on say, Pluto, Mercury, Saturn or Jupiter? Next to air, the other essential element, of course, is water. We in Lancaster University had a brief taste of life without water around November 20 last year when the supply system suffered a temporary disruption. Within hours, bottled water in the supermarkets on campus ran out of stock. Everyone was taken unawares, and left fumbling for solutions. “I brushed my teeth with milk this morning”; “I scooped a little bit of water left in the water-closet to wash my face”; and “I took baked beans with carrots for breakfast” are some of the interesting things you would hear from students when such situations get to the worst.

But why bring back the water issue from the dead. After all it happened about four months ago, someone would argue. Last Monday, March 3, there was an abrupt power outage (the second in two months) around mid-day when administrative and academic activity were progressing in earnest. Then it dawned on most people just how dependent our lives had become on computers and machines. For that one hour or so when the outage lasted, life virtually ground to a halt. Or, as someone put it, we ceased to function. Computers in the labs, classrooms, shops and offices had blacked out and virtually everyone had to take a compulsory vacation from their schedules. In moments like that, what comes to mind is the question of alternatives or contingency. Do we, and should we, take it for granted that these essential facilities (water, electricity) would always run smoothly without any mishaps? I don’t think so. Yet each time there is an interruption in supply we become surprised, caught off-guard as it were. In such moments of urgency reasons, blames, explanations or witch-hunting do not count. What matter most are stand-by solutions to minimise discomfort and inconvenience.

Before I began this write-up, I made an effort to reach Mr. Simon Corless and Mr. Mark Woodhouse, both of the University’s Estates Management department, for an interaction. Understandably, the two gentlemen have a lot on their hands of late so it was not possible to get them to talk to. Basically, what I intended to ascertain was whether the University runs its own water and electricity networks, or that we were dependent solely on the general district-wide supply systems for those amenities. If the latter is what pertains, then one would regard the occasional breaks being experienced recently as a wake-up call. The need for an independent, localised contingency plan for the University community.

I remember my secondary school days in one of the most deprived rural districts of Ghana. There was an old diesel generated hidden in a little hut in the school orchard. Each time there was power outage from the national grid to which the school was connected, the school engineer would trot to the orchard and spark the generator (usually after a struggle), so that students didn’t grope about in darkness, and so that some senior boys didn’t ‘stray’ into the girls’ dormitory because they couldn’t see their way.

With the advent of technological advancement, the tendency to dismiss certain ideas or measures as outmoded is real. For instance, the idea of installing diesel generators for power supply in a digital age might sound ridiculous to some people but if it practically serves the purpose why not! How about mounting panels for the tapping of cheap solar energy for use in the halls of residences and offices as a back-up in the event of abrupt power outage? And how about erecting three or four big water reservoirs at various vantage points, each one serving a certain portion, say one-third or one-quarter, of the campus in case of any temporary disruption, till such time that normalcy is restored. Of course, such measures come with a cost, but they might be worth the spending.

Joseph’s theory in the scriptures about seven years of famine after seven years of plenty when he interpreted Pharao’s dream, is a significant endorsement of the importance of devising contingency plans towards the unforeseeable, even while the going is still good. So that when that moment of need arises there would be something to fall upon. It could make that critical difference between life and death. Which also brings to mind the event of  Tuesday, February 27, 2008. At about one o’clock in the morning I felt my room practically tilt from side to side, and the desk at which I sat actually moved. Then I knew it was serious business – something more than just a brief dizziness or my own imagination.

After that short spell of vibration things went quiet, but I kept vigil for the rest of the night, not knowing the cause of that unpleasant/mysterious movement and never wanting to be taken unawares in case of any further shake-ups. The following morning I learnt to my discomfort that what had occurred the previous night was an earthquake! The thought of it had actually crossed my mind the very moment it happened but, out of dread, I refused to admit it. In the culture I come from we were taught in childhood never to mention dreadful things by their names, otherwise they would materialize right in front of you.  So instead of a snake you would rather say a “stick.”

With that confirmation the next morning, a lot of “ifs” rushed through my mind. What if it had been more severe here on campus than what we experienced (God forbid!). Or, to borrow the favorite phrase of one of my teachers years ago, what if it had continued “to its logical conclusion”? Would the University system have the capacity to deal with such a disaster in terms of providing evacuation and first aid services? Or would the University have had to rely on an already over-stretched and overwhelmed Lancaster City emergency service? They may sound hypothetical now, but all the same these are issues worth reflecting over while they still remain in the abstract, so as to come up with concrete answers that might save a situation some day.