I am stuck in Paris right now as my flight, which was due to take off last Tuesday, was cancelled due to bad weather conditions. Very annoying but I can’t complain as compared to other Algerians back home I have access to food and heating. Watching the news bulletin on the national TV channel never ceases to be a revelation! Everyday I discover, together with my compatriots who still make a point of watching the news bulletin at 20:00, the many efforts the Algerian State is deploying to counteract this unusual weather. Even the Police Force has gotten involved in addition to the National Army, the Japanese company (COJAAL) which is working on the East-West highway as well as the citizens themselves. Indeed, citizens have taken it upon themselves to clear local roads and appeal to other citizens on the national radios to help them get bottled gas (used for heating and cooking) or give them a lift to hospitals to get treatment for various chronic ailments. Naturally, there are priorities, we are told. So the major connecting roads are cleared first. This leaves many remote communities practically cut-off from the rest of the world. Some sources report that 44 people have died in road accidents or from gas asphyxia. One thing I have noted however, is that the national TV channel does now broadcast angry citizens who complain about the State’s failings. Not often but still it is a perceptible change. Needless to say, we continue to be treated to the streams of contented and happy citizens thanking the government for the brilliant job it’s doing. However and to be fair, although this is the State channel, I do think that the staff themselves are more to blame for the poor quality of the reports than the government’s stance with respect to freedom of expression.
The events of recent days have made me realize how fragile the social situation in Algeria still is. If we are to expect more extreme weather in the future, because of global climate change, one can only fear how Algeria will be able to cope. Even in good weather, we have no food security and no energy security*, so you can imagine in bad weather. Will this make our rulers think of building capacity to cope with such events in future? Judging from how things have been managed in the last 50 years, I would say no. Consider the example of earthquakes which are a more common occurrence in Algeria than extreme weather: has anything been done to make sure buildings are more resistant to earthquakes in areas which are prone to these phenomena? Nope. Even relocating people in the event of an earthquake is not at all streamlined. Another indicator: has any Algerian ever heard or received an official action plan in case of such and such natural disaster? Not that I know of. If the State were efficient, local authorities should have anticipated the current weather situation and gotten prepared for it in advance. Unfortunately, the website of the National Meteorological Office was out of service due to bad weather conditions too. Making citizens aware is also part of preparedness because it would prevent panic and speculation in essentials such as food (national newpapers report that food prices have gone sky-high as a result of a surge in demand and insufficient supply due to bad weather). As always, the government’s policy is reactive and never or rarely proactive. Another clue: Air Algérie, the national airline company whose motto is “Always caring for you“, has it made a public announcement or broadcast an update bulletin about its scheduled flights? No. The answer is no to every question about how every single one of the State’s services has reacted to (never mind prepared for) the current extreme weather wave.
So after all this, how can anybody talk about the glorious State’s efforts and manage to keep a straight face? What makes the national TV coverage of the situation even more surrealist is that they reserved a slot for an insurance bloke who came on air and urged citizens to think of taking up insurance against bad weather. He said that it is unfortunate that, unlike Europeans (it’s not only Medelci who wishes we’re Europeans you see!), Algerians totally lack the culture of getting insured for various mishaps such as bad weather. Hmm, I wonder if that could be traced back to an unfortunate turn of history as well!
I suppose you could argue that despite extreme weather, the State is still pursuing political reforms which were announced by Bouteflika last April, following fears of an Algerian Spring in the aftermath of the ongoing Arab one. Our President came on air (the speech was recorded), to tell us that the reforms are still ongoing and must be in place before the upcoming legislative elections which are due this spring. I did listen to the speech but as with the April one, I didn’t understand anything of what he announced. Was all mumbo jumbo to me, and I bet it was even more so for the average Mo (Algerian equivalent for average Joe).
Despite all this, snow has always been considered as a good Omen by Algerians. Not only because it is white and beautiful but because it is a blessing for local farmers, especially after a particularly dry winter this year. Many see in these recent snow showers a generous response from the heavens to prayers which had been performed the week before last (salât al–istisqâ‘). In addition, it even snew in regions which are unfamiliar with snow such as the capital Algiers ans some cities in the desert such as Bechar. This was welcomed by the locals who went out and enjoyed some heartening snow fights; Algerian-style. For some reason, our neighbour Morocco has missed out on this. Better luck next time eh!
* Algeria has of course good production capacity but the problem is poor distribution especially to remote areas and illegal smuggling of hydrocarbons across the borders. However, even production might not be enough if population continues to grow and energy consumption increases per household due to rapid urbanization.