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Keeping Yemen’s Lights On

Yemeni students study for final exams under the light of candles amid disruption of electricity up to 20 continuous hours a day in Sanaa on June 25, 2011. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni students study for final exams under candlelight amid disruption of electricity up to 20 continuous hours a day in Sana’a on June 25, 2011. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Mentioning the name ‘Kalfoot’ to many Yemenis will be met with the same exasperated and angry response.

He is synonymous with the power cuts that have plagued Yemen in 2013, with constant attacks on the power infrastructure in the unruly and impoverished governorate of Marib, leaving big cities such as Sana’a and Taiz without power.

Kalfoot—real name Mohammed Hassan Al-Aji—is a Maribi tribal sheikh and the most well known of Yemen’s electricity saboteurs. In response to criticism of his activities, he protests that his attacks on the power infrastructure are a response to the lack of government investment in the resource-rich province, which lacks schools and hospitals. He is now something of a celebrity in Yemen and a private television station, Azal, filmed him explaining his reasons for attacking an oil pipeline. The raging fire coming from the pipeline was clearly visible in the background.

Other Yemenis blame what many see as a powerless and incompetent central government that has failed to impose itself and stop the attacks in Marib, or even properly explain what is going on.

Some opposed to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh blame him for the attacks, accusing him of attempting to paralyze Yemen to better increase the opportunity of a return for his family. President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi is believed to support this view in private.

However, even if such rumors abound and are actively encouraged by members of the National Unity government, they have made no public pronouncements to say as much, and the average Yemeni has been left in the lurch.

Instead, Yemenis are left to fend for themselves. Those who can afford it buy generators, although in extended power cuts their ability to pay for fuel is often strained. The less fortunate—the majority—rely on candles.

Not just a mere inconvenience, the power cuts are causing serious problems for Yemen’s economy. Businesses now have to spend more money on fuel and costly generators. More costly still is the price of fixing the pylons or stations that have been attacked and of attempting to maintain some semblance of security at them. Of course, the power cuts also affect hospitals, causing danger to thousands of patients, especially those who go to public hospitals.

The attacks on the power infrastructure have also left some pointing the finger at corruption and the role it has to play in this regard. Black market traders in petrol and diesel benefit greatly when the power grid goes down, as people have to rely on generators. It is acknowledged by many that several powerful and politically important figures in Yemen have their fingers in the black market pie.

Some Yemenis have decided that they are better off pursuing other avenues when it comes to generating electricity and are investigating possibilities in bypassing the state altogether. Although still a relative novelty, shops selling solar panels exist around Sana’a, and interest in them as a viable alternative to mains power is increasing. However, their high cost is prohibitive to the vast majority of Yemenis.

Meanwhile, the government itself is looking at renewable energy, including solar power and wind energy, as an alternative to the current reliance on conventional fossil fuel power stations in governorates with little state control. Yemen sees yearlong sun in most parts of the country, and its western coast is among the windiest places on Earth.

Will this solve the issue? Or will we start seeing angry tribesmen firing anti-tank rockets at wind turbines? Whatever happens, Yemenis have a simple wish: that the lights stay on.

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Abubakr Al-Shamahi
Abubakr Al-Shamahi is a British–Yemeni freelance journalist. He holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London. Abubakr tweets at @abubakrabdullah. His blog can be found at www.alshamahi.com

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