Friday, 13 December 2013

"Working in the desert teaches you many lessons of life"

"Ashish, I will need you for the next 40 minutes," I tell my interviewee over the phone. "Okay," he says, but truth be told, he does not know if he will be free for that period of time.

Ashish Kumar Mallick is speaking to me via telephone from Haima, a dusty little town in the middle of the Omani desert, 500 kilometres from the capital, Muscat and the same distance from Salalah, a city in the nation's south.

It is widely known now that the Arab world's development has come via the region's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Most of Oman's oil wealth lies far away from its coastline, in the middle of the country, deep in the of the desert.

Haima is one such base of operations for oil companies that are involved in the extraction of oil and natural gas from the nation's fuel-rich earth. 

What he does

Ashish is a field operations and network maintenance officer for a telecommunications company that monitors the 3G and 4G connection networks for these companies that are involved.

Because what these multinational oil companies do is so vital to the nation's economy, telephone networks that serve them are prioritised above the others that have been laid out all over the country. He is responsible for about 40 individual sites in the region.

Breakdown of these 'priority one' sites means a lapse in communication between an isolated oil drilling operation in the middle of the desert and the operations centres which are located in the capital.

Ashish therefore has to be available to monitor, service and repair these sites 24 hours a day.

"All our telecom sites are monitored 24/7 by the Network and Operations centre (NOC) located in the capital", explains Ashish. "Any activity carried out in any of the sites or any issue occurred in any site is reported to the systems in the NOC.

"The issues are reported in the form of alarms which were configured in the sites when [they] were installed," he explains. So, whenever an alarm appears on any site, the issue is escalated to the Field Maintenance team i.e. to us and then we follow the issue."

 The base transceiver of a 3G telephone tower. 
The antennae through which such towers send and receive signals
Ashish says that every issue that is reported to him has to be addressed within a given period of time called a Service Level Agreement.

Where he lives

Oman's capital of Muscat is located in the north of the country. Its other major city, Salalah, is in the Dhofar Region to the south, more than a thousand kilometres away. Known as Route 15, the road that links these two cities together is the nation's spine.

Haima lies about halfway between the two cities of Muscat and Salalah, which are a thousand kilometres apart. Picture courtesy Google Maps.
"After you leave from Muscat, comes the city named Nizwa. After that its all barren land as far as your eyes can see with no civilisation at all," explains Ashish. "But this road is very crucial and never sleeps.

"There are vehicles from small ones to long trailers running 24/7 on this road, transporting people, food, heavy machinery [and] industrial chemicals to the oil rigs and base camps. "Haima is a stop to take rest or for refuelling for the traffic along this road."

Ashish originally worked in the capital, monitoring mobile internet sites and phone towers that went kaput but was slightly disappointed when he was told that he would be posted to an outpost in the middle of the desert.

"Before I was posted to this place, I had enquired [with] my colleagues who had worked here earlier about the place," says Ashish, who originally hails from Bangladesh.

"They described the place as a small dwelling (in this case, town) consisting of [a] few houses, a hospital, a police station, a school [and a] few shops in middle of the majestic desert whose vastness makes you feel so small. 

"So I had a clear picture of the place before I arrived here and the thought that I have to leave my family and friends and work in the middle of desert made me sad and depressed," he said

"But still focussing on my job and gathering some positive feeling I looked forward to the experiences I would take back after working here."

Going to Haima exposed the 25-year-old to a very different aspect of life in the Arab world. He was able to witness first hand what went into providing Oman with the wealth she has amassed over the years.

Living in the desert

"I have been to oil rigs and gas plants as many of my sites are installed there," reveals Ashish. "It's totally a different experience seeing these drillers and machinery harvesting energy for us.

"I have also stayed overnight in base camps in the middle of the desert which was another adventurous experience for me."

"Every time I move out to go it feels like an adventure to me because today if I am going to one site for the first time, I don't know where is it, how are the roads leading to the site," he tells me.

"I just follow the GPS (Global Positioning System) and I feel like an explorer, exploring the sand-filled areas of the country, driving long distances, so that itself is an adventure."

An oil rig in the desert. Many dot the landscape of Oman's southern desert. It is here that the nation's oil wealth is located.
"In the middle of the desert they have done all this stuff. They were able to organise everything," he recalls. "You're in the camp and you see around you, it's just the desert. You're living in the middle of nowhere. That's like an adventure."

'Nowhere' is correct. The closest city from Haima is Duqum, located on the Omani coast, 180 kilometres from where Ashish is based. It is being built to help channel Oman's economy and has the nation's first dry dock.

There are several construction projects in Duqum, with roads, hotels, residential complexes and an airport being built. Future plans for the city involve the establishment of a duty-free port. Ashish goes there often, as he has several sites that need tending to.

The dangers of drilling

But Ashish reveals that the process of extraction of oil and natural gas is an extremely dangerous business. Safety protocols of the highest standards are enforced at such sites. 

"A small mishap can cause disastrous results. So the oil and gas industry has laid a lot of safety rules and regulations to be implemented while working on the field," explains Ashish.

"The complete workforce in the oil and gas industry, ranging from labourers to engineers, have to undergo strict safety training and [have] to [pass] tests before they start working [in] the field.

"Wearing safety helmets, safety shoes, safety glasses, coveralls while working on the field are few safety measures [that] I know [of].

"Even when we go to sites (that are located in oil rigs) we have to follow these safety measures."

"The drilling of crude oil or gas also leads to the extraction of Hydrogen sulphide gas which is a highly poisonous gas and can cause painless death," he continues.

"Therefore the levels of this gas [are] strictly monitored and maintenance of the pipelines carrying this gas is done regularly.

This is a pipeline that transports hydrogen sulphide gas away from the oil rigs. The gas, says Ashish, can cause painless death. 

Safety measures

The traffic rules there are very strict. "All the vehicles running in the fields have in-vehicle monitoring systems installed with speed limits to drive. Violating any of the safety rules or regulations is penalised," adds Ashish. "Also, there are security checks all over the place to ensure safety.

"The vehicles here are always parked in reverse parking mode," he says. "Also, there are assembly points made near the oilfields, where all the labourers and people working can assemble (in case of fire)."

In addition, all workers at these rigs are put through training sessions and fire drills so that they know what has to be done in case a fire breaks out.

"It's the combined effort of this huge workforce in the oil and gas industry working 24/7 that we are able to harvest energy for our energy-hungry cities."

Because of the dangers of travelling alone in the desert, Ashish says that the movements of all those who are away from the base of operations on maintenance duty are constantly tracked.

"When we are travelling through some sites which are in some oil rigs which are very far away from the main cities or the highway, its dangerous to travel to such places," he says. "Those places have a procedure. Initially, we have to mail them a day before.

"We have to mention our scope of work, why are we visiting the site, we have to mention our car details, our personnel details, ID card number and our company details - from which company we come and what is the purpose of visit."

Oil rigs and their operations centres are always cordoned off with fences such as this one so as to prevent entry by unauthorised personnel
"These people will formulate the journey plan accordingly, and the camp at the oil rig are notified [via] email," says Ashish, explaining how this procedure works.

"We have to carry this journey plan once we're leaving the base camp. Once we reach the oil rig, we have to show the authorities there the plan and everything: the permission we get to access the site."

Sometimes, it is not safe to return to base camp on the same day. When such situations arise, provisions are made for visiting personnel to stay at such outposts overnight.

"In the middle of the desert, you have a five-star hotel," says Ashish, referring to the quality of accommodation. "We have proper rooms located for engineers, managers and labourers. Engineers, we get a complete room, we get all facilities.

"There are timings for the food. If you miss it, then you won't get to eat," he says. But, "everything is so disciplined and organised, it's like army rule in these places.

"Everything has a time: you have to wake up early, for lunch there is a time, for breakfast there is a time, for dinner there is a time."

The dangers of the desert

Because of the dependence that the worlds' economies have on oil and natural gas, areas that are rich with black gold are often dotted with military encampments and Ashish says it is the same in and around Haima.

But the military are (naturally) quite secretive about their operations in such areas and when Ashish does go to such places to service mobile phone sites, he is provided with an escort to ensure he fulfils his purpose and then leaves.

"You can't ask [about anything] or take photos in that place. The camps are guarded with a lot of security and you have to get security passes and a lot of procedures are there (to enter military bases)," he finishes.

The operations centre of an oil rig. Note the tall radio tower on the left. It is towers like these that Ashish is responsible for
The vast spaces available on roads that traverse the desert coupled with fuel being available at throwaway prices in Oman initially did tempt Ashish to drive his car at top speed as he made the long journey from Haima to one of his remote phone sites in the desert.

But he learned very quickly that doing so was a serious faux-pas.

"The fuelling stations here are quite a distance, probably a minimum of 300 kilometres far from each other so when are fuelling our vehicles, we feel that so much fuel is enough for travelling so much distance," he elaborates.

"But sometimes our calculations can go wrong because we drive fast or we're not stable on the road. All these vehicle parameters determine the mileage of the vehicle, so finally we end up running out of fuel for the vehicle."

To Ashish, this happened on the day he left the capital for Haima. "Luckily, [at] that time, my other colleague, who was already here, was present, so I just called him up and he brought extra fuel for me," he recalls.

Despite the presence of all these safety measures, Ashish says there are rescue teams who search for people who do get lost or are involved in accidents.

Now at Haima for three months, Ashish has several avenues to keep himself busy during down time. This is vitally important, as boredom in such a remote place can quite often have adverse health effects.

"Since I've been staying here since three months, I have made many friends working in the same field as I," he says. "We go to a hookah place nearby for hangouts or play football in the park or do BBQ sometimes.

"Otherwise thanks to the high speed 4G internet we get here and the technology that has made high storage capacities for digital media so that we can store in huge collections of movies, TV series and e-books to read that can keep us occupied. So this is how I spend my spare time here."

Life lessons

Ashish has decided not to dwell on the acute isolation that such places have from the rest of the world. He has learned much from his time in Haima. "This place has given me lot of experiences and has taught [me] many job skills," he says.

"If any issue arises in any site you have to co-ordinate with all the departments and plan your actions that you will need to troubleshoot the problem. You cannot afford to make mistakes here."

Another type of oil rig construct
However, Ashish feels very fortunate for the experience living in Haima has provided him with. "I feel good that I am able to see such things because you don't get to experience [this] if you're staying in cities," he says. "If someone wants to pay and experience like this, he won't get [it]."

"It's a completely different experience. You're going in between the desert and you don't know where you are going and you finish your work and you come back. Everything is planned."

"Staying alone in a deserted place away from your friends and family is like the worst punishment," adds Ashish, "though it teaches you many lessons of life. like to have self control over your feelings and emotions, teaches you to value each and every moment you have spent with your family and friends, teaches you to focus more on your work [and] makes you a better organised person.

Ashish is glad his tenure in the desert is coming to an end, though. The towers he manages are in the process of being handed over to another company, and his is eager to see his family again. 

"[I am] hoping to enjoy New Year's with them," he says.

Please note that all pictures have been used for academic purposes only

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