FEATURES AND COMMENTARY
Washington, DC — In what promises to be the best road map yet for identifying global problems caused by the Year 2000 technology glitch, the State Department Tuesday is releasing country-by-country warnings for Americans living or doing business in 194 nations.
The unprecedented warnings will include details from countries where visiting Americans could be affected by power outages, water shortages and other potentially serious problems if computers are unable to recognize the four-digit date 2000 on Jan 1.
Britain said it also planned to publish a country-by-country advisory on Tuesday that would warn British citizens about nations most at risk from the Year 2000 technology problem.
The U.S. reports were compiled by its embassies worldwide. Experts have long complained about the difficulties collecting adequate information from foreign governments about possible computer failures.
“Most of the information we’re getting is self-reported,” said Robert Bennett, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate’s Year 2000 Committee. “If it turns out these self-reported statements are accurate, the folks won’t feel much in the way of Y2K.”
The warnings also were expected to suggest how and where failures overseas may affect U.S. interests in the interconnected global economy, where problems with the export of Venezuelan crude, for example, might affect the price of gasoline for motorists here.
“Disruptions in this infrastructure and the relationships among suppliers and customers will negatively affect individuals, firms, industries, governments and national and regional economies around the world,” the agency’s inspector general, Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers, told a Senate committee earlier this year.
The State Department previously has criticized Y2K efforts in Russia and former Eastern bloc countries, citing a “relatively high probability of failures.” It also has predicted problems with power grids in India and Poland, railroads in China and telephones and water supplies in Italy.
The task of publicly identifying countries where systems might fail was clearly a sensitive one for the agency, which called the warnings “carefully compiled in an objective, non-comparative and non-alarmist way.”
The Bureau of Consular Affairs said comments about Y2K efforts will be added to each nation’s updated consular information sheet, available on the State Department’s Internet site, and said details will be updated periodically as countries improve.
“Our first priority is to provide information to U.S. citizens to try to meet their needs,” State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said.
The Year 2000 problem may occur because some computer programs, especially older ones, might fail when the date changes to 2000. Because the programs were written to recognize only the last two digits of a year, such programs could read the digits “00” as 1900.
Experts say the world’s worst Year 2000 failures will occur overseas. They are predicting with increasing confidence there will be no national failures in the United States among key industries.
“China is a worry, Japan is a worry, Russia is a worry, Italy is a worry, but many of these countries now are moving more aggressively and catching up,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., vice chairman of the Senate Year 2000 Committee.
The Gartner Group Inc., an analyst firm in Stamford, Conn., last month identified Russia as the highest risk for Y2K failures, followed by India and a cluster of countries that included Venezuela, Norway, Japan, Taiwan and Finland.
“Except for what might be a small handful of countries, things like air-traffic control, airlines and airports are doing pretty well,” said Lou Marcoccio, a research director at Gartner. “I don’t think we’re going to end up with a long list of countries that are extremely dangerous.”
Earlier this summer, Cargill Inc., a worldwide grain shipper, told South Africa it plans to avoid trading in the country between mid-December and mid-January because of inadequate Y2K preparations.
The British list will initially cover 50 countries, with more to be added in the next few weeks, the government said. When complete, there will be information on about 125 countries.
Countries named as potential problem sites were China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Portugal. The Foreign Office reserved its strongest warning for Ukraine, advising against all holiday and nonessential travel between the New Year period and early January.