Where air-conditioning finally meets its match . . .
'Only connect!' Once a much-quoted exhortation to join prose and passion from the novelist e m Forster, then the motto of a mobile-phone company. Now a plaintive cry across the divide that separates art history (what things look like) from air-conditioning, safe-water plans and heat- recovery systems (how things work out).
Only connect! Five years ago there was a demonstration of electric cars in Florence. With a scrunch of gravel, an eager little solar-powered Kevet L-Jet leaped away. Round the carriageway of the Palazzo dei Congressi it sped, until it passed under the shadow of a tree. Then it slowed to a painful crawl. One by one all the other electric cars revealed similar limitations. They had room for only a single occupant. None had headlights, windscreen wipers or heaters. This did not deter the director of the event.
'I live only for the day when all can drive cars such as these, and we shall have no more pollution and noise,' he announced, presenting the conference grand prize to the driver of a car hardly any wider than its own number plate, that had allegedly been driven over the Alps from Munich powered by the sun.
Only connect! A far cry from sun-drenched Italy is the superheated oven of Riyadh. There, far from experimenting with alternative energy, the natives invest recklessly in air-conditioning, which at peak times accounts for 70 per cent of Saudi Arabia's electricity consumption. Sitting as they do on top of a quarter of the world's known oil reserves, the Saudis are generally unconcerned about this. Their electricity bills are heavily subsidised and more than a few households leave the air-conditioning running in their homes when they go abroad for the summer, to prevent the intense desert heat from damaging the interior decorations. In such circumstances it might seem impossible to make headway with threats of an energy crisis, but it is not entirely. Just as in Europe a politician or an administrator can always be found to announce with a straight face that the future of the motor car lies with derivatives of the Kevet L-jet and not the Audi tt coupe, so in Saudi Arabia it is possible to find a deputy minister for electricity who has enough flipcharts, facts and figures to prove that the sweltering desert kingdom is on the brink of an energy crisis.
Like the saintly Jimmy Carter in 1970s America, Abdul Rahman Tuwaijri is on a diversionary energy trip; he says that either the Saudis have got to learn to live in temperatures of the lower 40s C like their desert forebears, or they will have to stump up £375 billion to triple their country's generating capacity. At this, of course, most Saudis merely reach for their cheque books, but Mr Tuwaijri pretends not to notice. Like drunken driving in the West, energy consumption in the Middle East is always good for a scary government advertising campaign.
Only connect! A subcontinent away from Riyadh is Bangladesh, where something much worse is happening. Before 1970, millions of Bangladeshis drank from shallow wells or natural ponds frequented by cows and water buffalo, so cholera and dysentery flourished. To conquer these diseases, thousands of deep tube wells for drinking water were dug in the 1970s and 1980s, using materials and technical assistance supplied by Unicef. Only years later did it become apparent that the tube wells also transmitted carcinogenic doses of naturally occurring arsenic. Today, the digging of tube wells continues because a return to surface water would mean many more deaths from dysentery, even though the World Bank estimates that 18 million people in Bangladesh are poisoning themselves as a result. Only connect.