Keeping Yemen in the dark ages

SANA'A, Yemen — Mohammad Said Ali spends the money he makes repairing electronics during the day on his family’s dinner at night. He has no extra savings, no rainy day fund, so when daily power outages shut down his one-man repair shop — the entirety of which could fit snuggly in the backseat of the average American sedan — for an hour, or sometimes four or five hours at a time, he and his family are in trouble.

“When the electricity is off, it is death for my business,” Ali said. “If a new customer comes and asks for me to fix something, I have to say no — and give away half my day’s salary.”

For Ali and many other small business owners, Yemen’s severe and worsening electricity shortage is more than just an inconvenience. It’s a financial catastrophe.

The cause of the electricity shortage is simple: Yemen’s rapidly expanding population, combined with the explosive growth of Yemeni cities thanks to internal migration, has outstripped the capacity of the nation’s decades-old diesel and steam power plants. Sana'a, the nation’s capital, is growing by a staggering 8 percent per year — making it one of the fastest growing cities in the world — yet the capital region draws power from virtually the same sources it did 20 years ago.

The government-run power company, Public Electricity Corporation (PEC), currently produces and distributes roughly 1,000 megawatts from a handful of steam and diesel plants, a network of smaller plants, and rented generators. Its current production falls 200 megawatts short of the national grid’s 1200-megawatt demand, according to Salem Ahmed Bahakim, a technical consultant to Yemen’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy, and a former manager at PEC. And demand, in turn, is expected to increase by 10 percent per year.

With numbers like that, the problem will probably get worse before it gets better.

At the end of last year, PEC began operating a new natural gas power plant in Marib, a city in the Hadramaut, Yemen’s natural gas-rich eastern desert, but delivering that new power to Yemen’s cities has been tricky. Because the power lines must run through tribal territories, the government must negotiate with tribal sheikhs for permission.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that PEC currently serves only those cities and villages on the national grid, which accounts for about 45 percent of the nation’s population — and excludes the vast majority of the Hadramaut and the lands through which the lines must pass.

Bahakim downplayed the problem. “There are protests, but that is the Yemeni way. The tribes want services from the government” — paved roads, schools, teachers — “and they will use the power plant [as leverage] to get what they want,” he said.

Aside from the first power plant in Marib, PEC’s current strategy is to build two more natural gas plants in Hadramaut and one in the region just south of Sana'a, said Ahmed Ali Al-Safi, who works on technical planning for the Ministry of Electricity. But local energy analysts aren’t optimistic. At the current demand rate, even if PEC was able to build and operate three more power plants in the next five years — an ambitious goal, to say the least — it still would not be able to keep up with demand, unless it also continued to run the old power plants, all of which are already past their prime.

And at any rate, small business owners like Ali aren’t concerned with the machinations of the Yemeni bureaucracy. They just want reliable electricity, and soon.

Abdullah al-Thulaya, who owns an iron-welding and wood-working garage in Sana'a, relies on electricity to run his tools. “When the electricity is off, we do nothing. We just wait,” he said. “If customers come in and ask for their product, we have to say it’s not ready yet. It’s bad for business.” Al-Thulaya estimates that he suffers a 25 percent profit loss owing to electricity problems. “If we cannot work for 25 percent of our day, what do you expect?”

Ahmed al-Shami who owns a corner convenience store in the Old City of Sana'a said the problem was definitely getting worse. “Everyone has candles in their windows, or emergency lights that they can charge when the electricity is on,” he said. “People are working with it, but they’re getting fed up. We’re losing our patience.”

Outside the Ministry of Electricity and Energy on Monday, two-dozen people from Hamdan village, about an hour’s drive from Sana'a, protested in the parking lot, demanding electricity in their village.

Inside, Bahakim shrugged. “We are not in a position to [expand] the national grid,” he said, adding that he had to buy a personal generator for his own home, which he runs two to three hours a day, just to keep the lights on. “Without electricity, it is not a disaster. The people will have some candles, and wait for the lights to come back on,” he said.

But many owners of restaurants, clothing stores and locksmiths in Yemen can’t just wait. Many have invested in compact, lawnmower-sized generators to keep their businesses lit during sometimes multiple, sometimes hour-long daily outages.

Ali Al-Shahan, who owns a small generator shop in the Old City of Sana'a, said that sales were up. Three years ago, he sold an average of 10 or 15 household generators per month. Now he sells between 60 and 70. The least expensive, Chinese-made ones go for about $60, al-Shahan said.

But for many small business owners in Yemen — like Mohammad Said Ali, who relies on the day’s profits from his electronics repair shop to feed his family — buying a fuel-guzzling generator is out of the question. “I do not have the money to buy one,” he said evenly, and then smiled. “Sometimes when I am working, I am praying for the electricity to stay on. Prayer is the only generator I have.”