Infrastructure: The importance of failure


South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) cable

Route of the South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) cable

On 6th June 2012 internet access to Bangladesh was severely disrupted when the South-East Asia – Middle East – Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) cable was damaged. The SEA-ME-WE 4 cable runs from France to Malaysia and is operated by a consortium of public and private organisations. The cable is Bangladesh’s only point of connection to the grid of fibre-optic cables that form the backbone of the global internet. Damage to the cable left the 5% of the Bangladesh population who are estimated to have internet access facing severe difficulty in accessing online services. News reports indicate that in addition to affecting individual customers’ email and browsing, work in Bangladesh’s garment industry – which relies on connectivity to communicate with clients – was disrupted by the outage.

The disruption of Bangladesh’s internet access highlights the otherwise hidden – literally submerged – network of fibre optic cables that are the physical conduits for the data flows that comprise the global internet. Moreover, in case we think that this is an isolated case, a cursory glance at recent history will show that damage to the spine of the internet is surprisingly common. For example, on 27 June 2005 a fault in an undersea section of the SEA-ME-WE 3 cable that complements SEA-ME-WE 4 “crippled many of Pakistan’s internet and mobile phone links.” SEA-ME-WE 3 is the longest fibre optic data “system in the world [and] includes 39 landing points in 33 countries and 4 continents from Western Europe…to Australia.” The cable has been damaged several times since, the latest being in January 2013, when it was severed near to Singapore resulting in internet access difficulties in New Zealand and the need for Australian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to find alternative routes for data. Many of these interruptions remain hidden to the majority of global users of the internet since ISPs have alternative routes for data available to them.

However, other disruptions of the large technical systems that keep global circulations moving are not so quickly overcome. For example, in April and May 2010 the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull led to intermittent closure of European airspaces. As a consequence “[o]ver 95 000 flights were cancelled and 10 million passengers stranded in the space of a week.”1 This disruption is a powerful reminder of the vulnerability of the global air travel system. Air travel interlinks a number of geographical places through the flight of aircraft. Just as cables can be cut, the interlinkages created by aircraft flying between one place and another can be disrupted by preventing flights. As soon as aircraft were grounded by the threat of volcanic ash damaging their engines, the global air travel system was seriously disrupted.

We might see the reported nine-day traffic jam that affected travellers on China’s National Highway 110 (part of the Beijing-Tibet Highway) in a similar light. Transnational flows of goods and people are channelled over-land on roads as much as they are in the air. A combination of maintenance, breakdowns and collisions can literally block the road conduits that carry this traffic, interrupting the flow of vehicles along them.  Sometimes such disruptions are not an accidental conjuncture of events, as NATO learned in November 2011 when Pakistan stopped the organisation moving supplies by road through the Khyber pass into Afghanistan, a blockage that would last until July 2012. Repeated Pakistani political disruption has forced the NATO war effort in Afghanistan to diversify its routes into the country and open major supply routes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as by air.

It is not just data, people and goods that rely on connective conduits such as fibre optic cables, air-routes and roads. Indeed, fuel, water, and waste all rely on large technical systems of pipes and wires. Interruptions to such systems are frequent and raise a number of pressing international concerns. Indeed, the question of sanitation and water supply has been raised as one of the key questions of the urban millennium by UN Habitat and is enshrined in the United Nations Millennium development Goal 7.2 Ensuring adequate sanitation and clean water means constructing networks of pipes and tanks and integrating these with software systems that can control the flow of water and waste.

Taken together these pipes, wires, cables, roads, and airways comprise infrastructure. As Stephen Graham notes, infrastructure is thrown into sharp relief precisely when it fails.3 When broken, blocked or destroyed, the resultant disruptions highlight the role infrastructure plays in contemporary ways of life. Such disruption highlights the manner in which infrastructure is responsible for the interconnective links that enable the flows we take for granted; infrastructure connects offices, homes, shops, factories and storage depots circulating energy, goods, capital, data and people between them. Infrastructure is, of course, unevenly distributed and large portions of the global population are excluded from its circuits. Nevertheless it is the interconnective structure that underpins the various circulations that define contemporary, supposedly globalised life. Indeed, terms such as international (literally between nations), transnational (across nations) and global (spanning the world) imply interconnective linkages. The international, transnational and global require conduits that will circulate goods, materiel, data, ideas, people between and across the various territorial jurisdictions of the world.  Infrastructure is thus the things that literally make the international, transnational and global. Without infrastructure, and the connections it establishes, the sense of circulation between and across states that underpins the ideas of international, transnational and global would be hard to imagine.

  1. Peter Adey, Ben Anderson and Luis Lobo Guerrero, ‘An Ash Cloud, Airspace and Environmental Threat’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36 (2011), 338–343
  2. See UN-HABITAT. (2006) State Of The World’s Cities 2006/7. Earthscan, London
  3. Stephen Graham, Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 3

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