Will the developing world face a Y2K disaster?

With reports streaming in assuring us that water companies and utilities in the western world are Y2K compliant, attention has turned to the developing world where preparation by water utilities has been patchier. In the second part of World Water's Millennium Bug report, Erin Gill asks if it's a case of too little, too late...

An analysis recently published by a London-based company, and indicating that countries with higher risk debt are “co-incidentally also at greater risk of Y2K damages” may have caused some to worry, but failed to surprise anyone fundamentally.

Leaving western countries out of the Y2K equation and surveying the countries that remain, it’s immediately obvious that nations that combine Western-style, developed economies with strong central governments have made the most progress. Hong Kong and South Africa have made particular efforts and it looks as though they will pay off.

Hong Kong is ready, but is China?

In early August Hong Kong was in the enviable position of reporting that it has been deemed “one of the four best prepared places amongst 48 economies in the world in terms of overall Y2K readiness,” by the Global 2000 Co-ordinating Group. Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s Water Supplies Department (WSD) has one niggling worry. Despite having tested and rectified all Y2K non-compliance in its systems it cannot ignore the fact that the territory’s drinking water is provided by the Guangdong Water Authority, on the Chinese mainland.

The Hong Kong WSD offered the services of its Y2K consultants to all suppliers and contractors, but concerns remain as to whether the Guangdong Water Authority is as Y2K ready as it claims to be.

In a further bid to reassure Hong Kong residents and businesses, the WSD has stated that “in case there is a discontinuation of water supply from Guangdong during the transition to year 2000, based on normal rainfall, the storage in the reservoirs of Hong Kong will be able to maintain 24-hour, uninterrupted water supply for at least three months.”

South African water watch

South Africa’s centrally-coordinated Y2K programme has impressed many, including the World Bank which has named South Africa one of only nine African countries “highly aware” of the Y2K phenomenon. South Africa’s National Year 2000 Decision Support Centre (NYDSC) assists individuals and businesses, but its other focus has been reporting on public sector compliance. It recently identified water as a sector requiring additional support in the last few months before 2000, although no large-scale disruptions to water supplies are expected.

Louis Buys, chief director of corporate services in the Department of Constitutional Development, told South Africa’s Parliament in mid-August that only short breaks to water and electricity supplies and STP operation are foreseen.

Estimating that breaks will last no longer than 30 to 45 minutes at a time, Buys pointed out that a thorough investigation into measures taken by the country’s 843 municipalities had revealed that more than half do not use equipment with embedded microchips.

As of May 1999, 37.5% of South African municipalities supplying water had completed a four-stage cycle of Y2K compliance meaning that they had compiled an equipment inventory, assessed potential Y2K problems, undertaken remediation work and tested systems. Only 15.6% of municipalities had not begun work by May.

NYDSC’s ‘State of Government Readiness Report’, issued in August, commented that in the area of water, “mission critical systems can be operated manually”.

Bearing in mind that 7.5M South Africans are not provided with treated drinking water, the country expects to be ready to supply water to existing customers without much disruption.

India focuses on power

India’s approach to the Y2K problem is typical of many countries that are racing against time or working with limited budgets in that it has, until recently, focused on obvious worries, like aviation and the nuclear industry. Water has not been given specific priority, but is seen as one of many sectors that depends on reliable power supplies.

Appropriately, the power industry has been identified as a pressing concern and a national seminar for the power sector was held in June 1999. Despite worries regarding a lack of preparation by state electricity boards, India’s Y2K co-ordinator, Mr S. Ramakrishnan, expects 90% compliance in the power sector by the end of September and compulsory contingency plans are due by mid-September.

According to some reports, inventories have revealed that almost 60% of India’s 93,000MW capacity of hydro and thermal power stations is based on pre-1985 technology.

As for the rest of the developing world, it’s anybody’s guess. Y2K doom and gloom merchants have predicted nuclear accidents in Russia – thankfully American funds have reportedly been used to make Russian nuclear reactors Y2K compliant – and public unrest if computer-managed salary systems develop bugs.

Meanwhile, optimists believe that the developing world may suffer from fewer problems thanks to lower levels of technology and, ironically, citizens who are more mentally prepared for mess-ups.

“Many developing countries’ utilities are used to working in difficult conditions and I think they’ll find ways around problems,” says Patrick Moore, a consultant who has studied embedded systems in particular. “It is countries with large economies like Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East that have to prepare. For instance, the Middle East has – for the last 15 years – had stable delivery of utilities, so disruptions would be difficult for people to deal with.”

Moore agrees that the impact of Y2K on water supplies, and utilities in general, was not given as much attention early on as Y2K impact on financial services. Yet, water and other essential services are as crucial to stability as a functioning stock exchange. “Financial services was the area where people could see there could be an impact from Y2K, so they’ve been the first to act,” says Moore. “There has been a time lag with utilities.”

At this stage only time will tell whether Y2K turns out to be a disaster or a doddle.

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