Friday, February 20, 2009

Powerless

One of the more agreeable constants of my abbreviated life here in the Philippines has been my electric fan.* It is not just the coolness it provides on which I have become dependent. At night its constant hum drowns out the incidental noises of the barangay I have been living in these past several months - dogs who think they are fulfilling their function by barking at shadows, the occasional trundle of buses on the highway some distance from my house, or roosters momentarily confusing a shining light bulb with the morning sun. Because the quiet is so deep here in the sticks, these little noises are enough to wake me. But my electric fan neutralizes them all.

Sometimes, however, I am deprived of this coolness and hum by what the locals call, in English, a brownout - an unannounced interruption of electrical power. A brownout is technically defined as a "scheduled" blackout. But scheduled or not, the distinction is quite meaningless if one has not heard the announcement of the power outtage, which is made on this particular island either on the local radio station or on a loudspeaker mounted on a truck owned by the power cooperative and driven around the port city, informing the lucky few who happen to be in town to hear it of the impending blackout.

This is by no means a local phenomenon. It is a problem that is endemic to the entire country, from the heart of Metro Manila to the farthest atoll. These brownouts can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. The shorter brownouts are spent rummaging for batteries and candles, and for the deck of cards that is customarily used to help while away the brownout. During the longer brownouts, one watches helplessly as the refigerator defrosts of its own volition and as perishables slowly perish. And if one has not fully charged one's cellphone, texts and calls will have to kept to a minimum to spare the battery.

There are some who are unaffected by brownouts either because they somehow manage to live without electricity (there are some in my own barangay) or because they have gone to the trouble of acquiring generators. Resort hotels, restaurants and clubs all ensure that tourists, in whose countries brownouts simply do not exist, should never notice the interruption of power. The ordinary Filipino, sans generator, is not so lucky.

The president and CEO of Meralco, which powers Manila, promised in TV ads last Christmas fewer brownouts in 2009. His promise was worth about as much as a smile from a whore. I live a considerable distance from Manila and I have been assured by another expat who has lived here for several years that the power supply is actually rather more dependable here than in many other parts of the archipelago. And yet there were eight brownouts in January and so far this month there have been eleven. One would think that the electric cooperative is bracing itself for the upcoming typhoon season. In fact, these untimely and exasperating brownouts are a kind of dry run, designed to give the residents of this island an ominous foretaste of the powerlessness to come. And global warming, whether one believes in it or not, is promising a rising sea level and more numerous and fiercer tropical cyclones in the future.


*Incidentally manufactured by a company called Mitsuno.

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