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A hot summer of discontent

Posted by FREE ADEN on June 13, 2009


SANA’A // The suffering of many Yemeni citizens will increase this summer in direct proportion to the rising mercury in their thermometers, as daily power blackouts force them to endure blistering temperatures without the comfort of refrigeration, air conditioning or electric fans.

“Life is becoming hell for us in the summer; we cannot tolerate such hot weather,” said Hani Mohammed Ali, a 45-year-old civil servant living in Aden, adding that there were up to six power cuts a day.

“I take my wife and kid to the roof to sleep, but the mosquitoes do not leave us alone. It’s unbearable.”

Power shortages are endemic during the hotter months from May to October when demand spikes, leaving many Yemenis without electricity for six to eight hours a day.

The main factors contributing to the country’s electricity problem, experts say, is the insufficient, ageing power infrastructure and the theft of electricity by industry and wealthy Yemenis.

Yemen’s total production of power is 650 megawatts, and the electricity ministry purchases about 200 megawatts from international companies to address part of the shortfall, according to the ministry.

“The shortage in power supply ranges between 100-120 megawatts. Some of the power produced seeps out of the system because of a lack of proper maintenance, as well as the old power stations. They now [produce] only 75 per cent of their capacity,” Awadh al Suqatri, Yemen’s minister of electricity, recently told the state-run Almithaq weekly.

According to a report by the Shoura council, a quasi-parliamentary governmental body, released last month, half of the country’s power stations are no longer functional or will cease to function soon and 43 per cent of the population has no access to electricity.

According to electricity ministry reports, leaked power reached 432 megawatts in 2007 compared to 231 megawatts in 2006. Leaked power has risen to 30 per cent of total output, and is due to outdated transmitting networks.

The power shortfall this summer is expected to soar to 220 megawatts, according to Mr al Suqatri, a problem the government cannot possibly tackle alone. Officials are considering involving the private sector to establish new power stations, he said.

Mr al Suqatri also blamed the increasing blackouts on rising demand during the summer.

“There is an increase in demand for power by 10 per cent due to the expansion of cities and the increase of electricity supply to the countryside. This demand increases significantly during summer. Therefore, we have to cover the power supply gap by instituting rolling power cuts across the country.

“It is one of the solutions though it costs us a lot. Constructing new power stations needs funding and takes between three to four years.”

Electricity theft is also a major problem as some owners of large workshops and factories siphon off electricity from public networks or alter their meters to squeeze extra power.

The General Electricity Corporation of the electricity ministry complains that 524 high-ranking government officials and influential tribal leaders have refused to pay their accumulated bills, which are estimated to be US$75 million (Dh275m), according to Abdulmumen Mutahar, the electricity corporation’s director.

Mr Mutahar said the ministry has contacted these individuals requesting payment but they have refused to comply. He said the ministry is thinking of publishing a blacklist of the offenders.

The net result is that Yemen’s electricity output is sufficient for only 57 per cent of the country’s 22 million people. Most of the available supply goes to the urban population, which consumes 92 per cent of total power. The majority of the population, who live in the countryside, use only eight per cent.

For several years, the government has been promising to end the power dilemma by building gas-fuelled power stations.

The first phase of the 341 megawatt Mareb station, the largest of the new power station projects, was supposed to begin production last year, but did not because the Iranian company contracted to build it, Parsian High Voltage Substations Development Company, had difficulty getting the necessary equipment from Europe as a result of sanctions against Iran, Mr al Suqatri said.

“We are doing our best to enter the Mareb station into service in July. We have established an operation unit to ensure it is on time. The work is almost completed. I believe this station will end blackouts,” he said.

The $268m station is set to generate more than 1,200 megawatts a year. Yemen is turning to gas-powered stations for generating electricity because it is a cheaper option for a country with gas reserves of 259 billion cubic metres.

Taher Hizam, an economist, said he is not optimistic that Mareb will start operating next month.

“Since 2005 and they have kept telling us they will address this headache of power shortages this or that year. The work started in 2003 but they had problems with the implementing company. I am not optimistic.”

Mr Hizam said the intermittent power supply is not only affecting citizens and their businesses, but remains one of the major challenges for attracting foreign investment.

“Power deficiency is one of the main problems that pushes foreign investors away from coming to Yemen. I know a lot of Gulf businessmen who have been reluctant to invest in Yemen due to the electricity problem,” he said.

“I think if the government succeeds in completing the Mareb gas stations … the problem will be controlled and this will encourage foreign investments.”

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