Permit me to recount a short history detailing the reality of life without electricity, something I experienced in Dubai during the massive power outage of 2005. The reports that followed made light of the incident as just a minor inconvenience. It wasn’t. Rather, and the reason that nightmare comes to mind all these years later, is the recognition that I was experiencing the Green Dream, the ordeal we will likely suffer this coming summer as a stressed and diminished grid falters and fails.
Dubai back then had just witnessed a decade-long building frenzy and commensurate expansion of the population to such an extent that the electricity-generating capacity was barely adequate until, one day, it wasn’t adequate at all.
I had been in Dubai for ten days and was due to fly out at 2am for London. As I had a lazy day to kill I woke at about 9am, not because it was time to get up but due to my hotel room being uncomfortably hot. My sweat was soaking the sheets. Clearly we had a problem, so I called reception and was told that the air conditioner was off due to an electrical fault, but it should be OK in an hour or so. As I was sticky with sweat (I am male, so I sweat, not genteelly perspire) so I had a shower — or at least I began to have a shower. Three minutes into my ablutions the water stopped. I was covered in soap and hair conditioner, so this was a problem. I considered my choices, and in the end selected Option A, which was to towel off the soap and dry myself as best I could. Option B would have been to rinse with water from the toilet bowl, which I rejected. As I later discovered, the toilet would have been the far better option. I will explain at the appropriate time.
It was not yet 10am and the room was stifling. The windows were sealed, so no chance of fresh air (or jumping out). I sat down to check my emails. There were plenty, but none of my replies were leaving my outbox, as the server was down. I was out of contact with the world. About 30 minutes later the battery on my laptop expired, so that was that.
I packed and decided to leave my bags with the concierge so I could go to a cool restaurant in a cool mall for a cool drink of cool water. Cool was becoming an obsession
Once packed, I left the room and dragged my suitcases to the lift, which wasn’t working. I was not surprised to find that I could not return to my room, since the door was electronic and my card no longer worked. Using the emergency telephone (totally inappropriately) as it was still working (don’t ask me why) I implored the reception desk for help. They declined, saying all staff had been allocated to other tasks. She offered no advice.
Oh well, it’s not really that bad, I thought, as I dragged my bags down ten flights of stairs to the ground floor. The stairwells were not air conditioned, so the temperature must have been 50°C. This attempt at resolving my checkout problem turned out to be a near fatal move, as the ground floor door sealed automatically when the power failed, surely a serious safety hazard and trap in the event of a fire!
Going back up ten floors, or even a few floors, was not an option. The floor hallways were not accessible from the stairwells without a pass key, as they were for escape (allegedly), not inter-floor travel. Anyway, I found I was not alone. At least 80 other guests were now jammed into the lower stairwell and in the same desperate position. The people at the front were banging with a panicked urgency on the steel door, and the stairwell behind me had already filled with as many as were in front. I thought I caught a glimpse of Dante and Milton in the crowd as we wilted in the hellish heat, sealed off from cool water and rescue by that steel security door. To our great relief, it eventually opened after a tradesman of sorts smashed the lock. By then the stairwell crowd was 200 strong, and together we surged in a staggering mob into the “cool” 42°C lobby, where we each given a bottle of cold water. All were upended immediately and drained in seconds.
I had a late checkout arranged for 8pm, but when I got to the counter after another hour’s wait in an ever-lengthening queue, I discovered no electricity meant no bill, which meant no checkout. I was luckier than most as I was carrying several thousand in US dollars, so I could pay in cash. But how much cash? Now I found out what the absent staff were doing. Equipped with keys that bypassed the electronic stairwell locks, they were climbing to each and every of the 30 floors to check mini-bars. Nobody was leaving without paying to the last cent.
My bill was compiled manually as I sat on the carpet, there being no other seats available as every single guest, like me, had sought refugee in the Lobby. Again, I was lucky as after only another hour they called my name and presented me with the handwritten bill, a (now warm) bottle of water and some sushi they were giving away before it spoiled. We agreed on the amount, I handed over the cash, checked out, gave my bags to the concierge and went to find a taxi. It was just after 3pm, 11 hours before my flight was due to depart.
Once more I was blessed by fortune, as I had a taxi within 15 minutes, the usual swarm having vanished, but I presumed this was because the power outage had made them busier than normal as people followed my example and headed for the malls. Not so, as I soon found out.
I thought of rejecting the cab driver’s demand for the usual fare multiplied by five, but as no other taxi was in sight and with more people checking out the queue would only grow, so I agreed to the exorbitant demand. I realised the transport situation could only get worse, so I retrieved my bags and told the driver to head straight to the airport, where I pictured myself relaxing in the Business Class Lounge. I could even have a shower! This was becoming an obsession as my skin itched from the soap and sweat and I found it impossible not to scratch like a mangy dog. There are only so many poses you can adopt before everyone knows your crotch is the worst-affected area and in need of serious attention.
I had driven to Dubai Airport dozens of times so I assumed it would be only a 20-minute journey at most, depending on the traffic. On this day it was nearly two hours before the airport finally came into sight, and then half as much time again until we arrived at the departures concourse. The drive from the hotel had been akin to a scene from a B-grade mega-disaster movie. When the power and air conditioning failed throughout Dubai — not just our hotel, as we had been lead to believe — the entire population piled their families into SUV’s, turned on the air conditioning and drove aimlessly around. Those who ran low on fuel were soon reminded that petrol and gas pumps also need electricity.
And a lot of vehicles ran dry. Cars were driven until they stopped and left wherever that happened, usually in the middle of the road. Entire families then piled out and sat under trees, or, if there was no shade, lay down under their cars. My driver chased some people out of their shade, doing ‘whatever it took’ to collect his fare, even mounting the kerb and mauling the painstakingly watered and nurtured grass verge with his tyres before returning to the road and squeezing between abandoned cars. No traffic lights were working so each junction was clogged – they were by far the favourite places to abandon automobiles no longer mobile. We finally made it to the departure ramp three hours after leaving the hotel.
It was now only eight hours until my flight, but things weren’t about to get any better.
This world-renowned mega airport had no power either! No flight details, no check-in terminals, no baggage conveyors and, apparently, no flight-control radar. Fortunately, the control tower could still talk to the pilots, so they were able to divert 90 per cent of the air traffic to other airports. Again my luck held because they had already printed a hard copy of the manifest for my flight. As the plane was already on the tarmac they would be able to take my bags, write the flight number on them and manually load them on to the aircraft. However, as no intercom was working I had to stay within a designated area from midnight while waiting for my flight to be called. I was assured that it was ready to fly.
At the airport nothing worked. No coffee, tea or cooked meals were available and all transactions were cash, but there was nothing for sale, not even water. As a business class passenger I staked out a piece of carpet for a bed, rather than taking a spot with the commoners on the polished floor. Although it was still daylight, I rejected the idea of going to the Business Class Lounge, as it was deep in the bowels of the terminal and I had thought ahead about what it might be like trying to find my way back to the ticket counter in the dark. So I stayed put.
Darkness fell, but there was no relief from the heat. One serious improvement was that I could now scratch my head, armpits and crotch like a demented chimpanzee, and do so without the disapproving looks of my soap-free non-traveling traveling companions.
At midnight, right on the dot (just as the airline had told us), my flight was called. We gathered in the darkness, where the announcement was made that the flight would be delayed until the next day, as the air traffic controllers were only able to use the inadequate emergency backup system, the main system not having its own generator (something they have long since fixed).
All water from the taps stopped and bottled water ran out about 02.00am. Surprisingly, despite the 40°C heat there was no riot, no robberies, no bad behaviour and no violence (as in New Orleans after Katrina), just a subdued resignation. The possibility of deaths from dehydration was, I suspect, quite real. Airline staff with torches did distribute bottled water to women and children, but I did not see any men demanding their places in this modern version of Titanic’s lifeboat drill and I did not ask for anything for myself, though I knew I was seriously dehydrated.
Sometime between 4am and 8am power was partially restored and a semblance of civilised life began again. However, the authorities had to manage the load, so the airport air conditioning was set at 28°C — still uncomfortable, but better than 42°C. Also, the recovery of power meant they were able to pump water to refill the water tanks, bringing the taps and toilets back to life. The toilets were a major problem, though, as nothing had been flushed for the past 18 hours. The low-paid foreign workers set uncomplainingly to work in those appalling conditions. No sooner had they finished than the toilets went out of commission again as a backlog of desperate people filled them up faster than the system could cope.
Time crawled in a slow, sweaty, scratchy torment. Finally, at noon the conveyors and terminals sprang to life and real, energy-guzzling civilisation returned. It was reported that fewer than a dozen CO2 producing humans had expired in the heat, thus returning their carbon to the Earth and ceasing their polluting, breathing ways. Surely a poor result from the perspective of the green-minded, who seem to think the world would be a far better place were humans not on it.
Suffice to say that at 2pm we were bussed to the plane where I found the smell of my fellow passengers more than somewhat unpleasant. No doubt the feeling was reciprocated, as I had been in the same clothes in fearsome heat for over 30-hours. Our departure then endured yet another two-hour delay as two of the plane’s toilets were blocked to overflowing.
It was only after we took off that the pilot informed us that the control tower was supplementing radio communications with binoculars in addition to the emergency backup radar. He said it was the first time in ten years he had made a ‘visual takeoff’, but he assured us that, as only 10 per cent of normal traffic volume was trying to get into the air, there was no real danger. Oh, good.
My relative good fortune (I hadn’t expired from heat fatigue) continued on my arrival in London for two reasons: first, I had an EU Passport, so I was not checked by Immigration. Those with foreign passports did not have an exit stamp from Dubai so were held for interrogation Second, my checked luggage was distinctive, so I found my bags with ease. Neither mine nor anyone else’s had been security-checked in Dubai. Heathrow management was not pleased by this and put every bag through their own intense security screen. It took me more than an hour to clear Customs, despite having nothing to declare.
My nightmare glimpse of the Green Dream had taken me 54 hours bed-to-bed and shower-to-shower’. I had red soap burns on my skin and my crotch was raw from scratching. I note by way of advice in regard to our coming summer that, when the power goes out, the toilet bowl option I rejected should be embraced. As the Greens keep telling us, we must adapt to our changing world.
Within a few years of my experience, Dubai resolved the majority of their energy deficiencies. They have built a massive oil-burning power station and provided backup diesel generators to all essential services. They saw the problem and took the sane, appropriate action required to benefit themselves, leaving the planet to look after itself – something it is perfectly capable of doing.