Six years ago this month, an all-but-forgotten power crisis arose in Africa that should have taught the developed world a lesson. One man - planning to cut it up into bracelets to sell to tourists - unbolted a steel strut from a 27-metre mast holding up part of the power line connecting the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric power station in Zambia with the southern African electricity grid. As a result, the mast collapsed, bringing down two more masts and starting a chain reaction that eventually caused an electrical blackout in six countries.The first power fluctuations caused the Hwange power station, 200 miles away from Kafue in north-west Zimbabwe, to trip out. This was followed by the huge turbine generators on the Kariba Dam.Then current flowing into Zambia from a hydroelectric power station in Congo reversed its flow and South Africa lost its connection to the vast Cabora Bassa hydroelectric scheme in Mozambique and all the power lines between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia went dead.Without electricity, civilisation came to a halt for the 12 hours it took to disentangle the mess.
The bizarre origin of the Kafue incident is not the only thing that makes it interesting.
Just as important was the fact that it was not caused by warfare, terrorist action, a nuclear accident, outdated equipment or poor maintenance. Nonetheless it was an event with paralysingly negative effects. Like the recent New York and Italian power cuts, it was an unwelcome reminder of the crucial life-sustaining importance of all infrastructure - not just roads, bridges and dams.
Rare though they are, compared with the years of 24/7 service they usually deliver, failures in the global infrastructure of electrical power are more frequent than we think. Only a few months before Kafue Gorge there was the massive power breakdown in Quebec, where thousands survived in arctic conditions for nearly two weeks.Then, in February 1998, Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand with a population of 1.1 million, was plunged into darkness after four huge power cables failed in succession. These broken circuits left the central business district of the city dependent on back-up generators that had not been designed or fuelled for continuous running. Unlike the low-population-density areas affected by the Quebec and Zambian failures, the agony of Auckland was urban and protracted.
Before the power cut, more than 60,000 people worked in Auckland's central business district, together with 5,000 residents in highrise apartments. Once the scale of the failure became clear, the government was forced to evacuate these apartment dwellers and call on all city-centre businesses either to close down for a week or leave for other parts of the country.Within days the city became a ghost town, patrolled by police on the watch for looters. Inevitably, the predicted week-long emergency stretched to three weeks.The Auckland power crisis was reckoned to have cost more than £200 million by the time a continuous temporary supply was restored.
But the significance of the Auckland power failure was not confined to its cost. Panic measures were tried; mobile generators were flown in from all over East Asia, and the city's privatised power company began laying an emergency power cable from the national grid into the city alongside railway lines.
This required emergency legislation that would have taken three months to pass through parliament.
'The trouble is that politicians and power companies simply do not appreciate that electricity is not just another product but an essential part of the country's infrastructure like roads or bridges.' These words from the chairman of the former Auckland Electric Power Board could be applied across the world's cities.